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Why Learning to Bartend Is a Curator's Best Friend

Talking to Natasha Marie Llorens about the ins and outs of curating art in New York City.
Installation shot of Jules Gimbrone's project, 'There is no there there,' part of the 'Threshing Floors' at Cuchifritos Gallery, New York City, May 2015. Photo credit: Natasha Marie Llorens.

A curator holds a lot of power over the ways in which we consume art. How organization and presentation, in fact, influences art's experience and interaction with the viewer is truly an art form in and of itself. A curator controls the order and flow of a body of work in a space, and too often, the curator's responsibilities, and the magnitude of their influences, go unnoticed.

Meet Natasha Marie Llorens, an independent curator and writer based in New York. Her most recent projects include Frames of War at Momenta Art in Bushwick, and two projects, Threshing Floors and Vois-tu-pas que je brule… (Do you not see?) with the Artists Alliance on the Lower East Side. She teaches art history and theory at The Cooper Union and a curating class at Eugene Lang. She is a graduate of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College and a Ph.D. candidate in art history at Columbia University whose academic research is focused on violence and representation in the 1970s and 1980s in Algerian national cinema.


This week, The Creators Project asked Llorens to offer a few lines of wisdom for the aspiring curators in all of us. Below, read her advice for getting your foot in the door and keeping it there:

Workshop documentation of Bill Dietz's Essex Street Pedometer. Threshing Floors at Cuchifritos Gallery, May 2015

What attracted you to the curatorial element of visual art?

I was working as a case manager for adults on the autism spectrum in North Carolina making visual work-plans. These consisted of making the physical and social aspects of a given task into a series of images, visual cues for my clients to follow as they worked. I had a BA degree in 19th century art history with a focus on Orientalism and aesthetic theory so, at the time, curating seemed to make sense as a synthesis of these two intellectual processes.

What skill do you think is most valued in your profession amongst the people you work with, the people who hire you?

I think curators should work against professionalization, or should figure out what they believe in and then learn to argue for it. There are not enough curators willing to take challenging positions and support artists they don't entirely understand and can't control. This kind of fearlessness is much more important to me than any skill. I am not entirely sure why people hire me, but the people who are interested in working with me more than once are responding to this conviction, I think.

What were some of the first steps you took to get your foot in the door?

I applied to curatorial graduate school and got rejected from every single one (including Bard, where I eventually got an MA). I wrote to each school and asked for feedback on how to improve my application, and then I followed this advice. This was the most useful form of curatorial mentorship I received for many years, and the process of applying forced me to read in the field and to articulate a preliminary position.


What sort of work experience did you find most valuable before starting your career?

Bartending, to be honest. Long hours, physical work. You need to understand the character of the wine and liquor you're selling and you need to be able to read the person who is asking for a drink. This means working in a highly contextual way— you need to be able to respond instantly to any number of circumstances. You are also watching people become more and more vulnerable as they get drunk. It is work that requires professionalism and compassion, flexibility but also the ability to be firm about when enough is enough.

What kind of characteristics make for a good curator? Which do not?

Deep listening, un-self-interested listening. The ability to watch both people and artwork attentively. The ability to identify insincerity in both people and artwork.

Some people would say that good curators are good at manipulating people. This is certainly true. I am not sure you have to be a good person (whatever that means) to be a good curator. Just attentive and willing to take risks. A good memory for names and an indexical knowledge of what's going on in the art world is useful, although I have neither skill, personally. I just wish I did.

What three tips you would give to your first years on their first day of classes?

1. Do all the reading.

2. Voice your objections, your disagreements.

3. Commit to the idea that curating is a process and that it is often chaotic.


What three tips you would give to a class of seniors on the last day of class before they graduate?

1. Make reading a habit.

2. Make friends with artists. If you don't like artists as a rule, find something else to do.

3. Don't work for people you don't respect.

Mary Walling Blackburn, Traveler's Dick: Our Self-Portrait from the (Contaminated) Sermon Chart series. Threshing Floors at Cuchifritos Gallery, May 2015


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