October 11, 2016

Making It Live: Dena Beard and Constance M. Lewallen in Conversation

Ant Farm 1968–1978, January 21–April 26, 2004; University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Photos: Sibila Savage.

Ant Farm 1968–1978, January 21–April 26, 2004; University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Photos: Sibila Savage.

In her long history as a curator at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), and in numerous books and essays, Constance M. Lewallen has made it her life’s work to delve into artists’ work. It’s no surprise that her integrity and ethic were an early inspiration to Dena Beard, who worked with Lewallen at the Berkeley Art Museum, and left in 2014 to take the helm of — and reimagine — The Lab.

Here, the two of them discuss their methodologies — what it is to collaborate with artists and archives, to navigate individuals and institutions. How to bring the studio into the gallery, and make the past live in the present.


Beard: The first show I saw of yours was Ant Farm 1968 – 1978, which you curated with Steve Seid in 2004. I didn’t know it was yours, obviously, at the time. It was a rare exhibition for me because it had a lot of imaginative sway — months later I was still thinking about it. Now that I know you, I know that this is largely because you have a deep understanding of Conceptual collections, dematerialized objects; you work with living artists, but also with their archives. And we’ll see this a lot with your exhibition in October.

Lewallen: Everything in the upcoming show, which I titled Mind Over Matter, is from the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive’s (BAMPFA) collection. My goal is to represent the richness of its Conceptual collection and at the same time create a stimulating show.

Beard: The fact that you’ve had relationships with the artists while they’re living and with their archives as well means that there’s something that’s being translated, that’s being reinvigorated in the exhibition itself.

Lewallen: I was very aware of Ant Farm from previous things I had done and knew Chip Lord, one of the founding members, pretty well. The exhibition started with a conversation that we had one day, but we really didn’t know what shape an Ant Farm show would take. There are the videos like Media Burn and The Eternal Frame that everybody knows, but how to represent all of the other aspects of their work? We started to work on the idea of a visual timeline as the spine of the show, which Ant Farm had already created; Chip had been archiving and documenting everything and had put it all in good order in his house. We decided that we would recreate one of their inflatable structures, which had not been seen since the original inflatable era of the 70s. We thought it would be very cool to have on view the “phantom dream car,” a modified 1959 Cadillac that Doug Michels and Curtis Schreier drove into the flaming televisions in Media Burn. But this was no easy task. I mean, the car is extremely long and wide. We had to remove the front doors of the Berkeley Art Museum to get the car into the lobby, where it remained during the show. Kevin Consey was the director at the time, and I remember approaching him with a certain amount of trepidation about the idea of showing the car. And he said — I remember this so distinctly — he said, “I’ve never known of a show with a car in it that wasn’t popular.” [laughter] We went forward. The car wasn’t functional any longer so it had to come on a truck. When I started planning the show I worked with all three of the principals — Lord, Michels, and Schreier. Unfortunately, Michels died in an accident before we mounted the show.

The joy for me always is in working with the artists, is what I guess I’m driving at, and in this case figuring out what that dynamic was among the principal artists and the others who came and went on various projects. And what was great was that their career was revived as a result of the Berkeley show and its tour. For example, there’s an Ant Farm show currently at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, where the centerpiece is a gigantic inflatable, which will contain Ant Farm Media Van v.08 [Time Capsule] (2008-2016), a contemporary interactive media sculpture and time capsule that re-envisions Ant Farm’s historic 1971 Media Van.

Beard: The inflatables keep getting bigger every time.

Lewallen: And, you know, one of the original inflatables was installed in Sproul Plaza on the Berkeley campus.

Beard: Really?

Lewallen: Yes. That was why it was especially appropriate to recreate an inflatable in the museum. The inflatables were like performance tents. People would go in, perhaps take off their clothes, [laughter] that kind of thing. There was always a madcap aspect to much of what the Ant Farmers did, which I found appealing. But at the same time, they were extremely astute. They really knew how to push buttons in their own playful, interesting way — making very serious points about the media and about history and how we process information. The audaciousness of making the video Eternal Frame with the collective T.R. Uthco (Doug Hall, Jody Procter, and Diane Andrews Hall) only twelve years after the Kennedy assassination on which it was based was pretty crazy. My co-curator, Steve Seid, an expert in video art, concentrated on Ant Farm’s video work. In fact, during Mind Over Matter, he and Chip are going to host an evening on November 16  in which they will screen and discuss Media Burn as well as other pertinent videos; it’s amazing how Media Burn continues to be relevant. When I met with UC Berkeley art history professor Julia Brian-Wilson’s class recently I showed Media Burn and wondered, “What are they going to think of this?” Well, they loved it! They just loved it.

Beard: It has legs. I’m wondering — how do you pursue and organize the information to prepare for an exhibition? I’m sure it changes from Bruce Nauman to Ant Farm to the Fault Lines exhibition you curated at the Kadist space recently, or a large group show such as State of Mind: New California Art circa 1970.

A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s, January 17–April 15, 2007; University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Photo: Sibila Savage.

A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s, January 17–April 15, 2007; University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Photo: Sibila Savage.

Lewallen: Well, I don’t know. With Bruce Nauman, having done a lot of research into Bay Area art in that period — the late 60s — I always knew but never really concentrated on the fact that he was here for several years as a graduate student and then, for a short time, as a teacher at the San Francisco Art Institute. That had always fascinated me and was there in the back of my mind. And one day I realized that I would like to create an exhibition of Nauman’s early work. It starts with this germ of an idea and then I begin researching and — in the case of Nauman — it became more and more clear what a great show it could be, because I realized that just about everything he did in that very short period of five or six years still resonates in his work today, continues to inspire him, and shows up in different ways throughout his career. A case in point is Nauman’s current show at Sperone Westwater Gallery in New York, which features several videos based on one of his earliest, Walk with Contropposto. Not that he’s repeating himself by any means.

Beard: We are both big fans of BAMPFA. We’ve been a part of it and we’ve seen it change quite a bit. You’ve seen it change much more than I have — you’ve done probably over 120 exhibitions there. How do we keep museums fresh in that sense? How do we keep refreshing their strategies when it comes to working with artists and with archives?

Lewallen: Well, I think the Berkeley Art Museum, to its credit, has had a long history of showing the kind of art that no other museum was showing at the time, such as performance and video. A lot of that had to do with David Ross when he was curator in the late ‘70s. Perhaps because the museum has never had a sizable budget to acquire works — and given its history — it was natural to focus on collecting works that were affordable, sometimes with a partial purchase and a partial gift, as was the case with the Ant Farm archive and Tom Marioni’s Museum of Conceptual Art (MOCA) archive. As a result, we became the repository of all this amazing work that didn’t have a lot of monetary value — at least at the time.

The collection was recently enhanced with the Steven Leiber acquisition. It was largely because of Leiber that people have begun to look at posters, mail art, announcements, and other ephemeral material in a different way — that is, as art. So it’s great that the museum has a particular strength on which it can continue to build without an enormous amount of resources. Having access to those archives has certainly inspired me.

Beard: But it takes a curator like you to come in and make it alive.

Lewallen: Well, that’s always the challenge. How do you make all those types of mostly documentary materials live again or make clear the original intent? You can’t do it completely, but you can try.

Beard: You started having these conversations about Conceptual art when you worked for Klaus Kertess at his Bykert Gallery in New York.

Lewallen: That was my introduction to contemporary art. I had studied art history but, you know, when you study in school you don’t know necessarily what’s going on right around you. Working for Klaus was my first job. There was basically very little business at the gallery [laughter] because we were showing work that was brand new — Chuck Close, Brice Marden, Dorothea Rockburne, to name a few, who were not yet well known. We had the first Jan Dibbets show. We also showed Michael Snow. Artists loved the gallery but, as I said, there wasn’t a lot of business. Rather, there was a lot of sitting around and talking.

Beard: It was a social space.

Lewallen: It was. Even artists who didn’t show there… I mean, like Vito Acconci or Joan Snyder would come by and just hang out, and I would hang out with them. It was just me and Klaus in the gallery. Klaus produced Philip Glass’s first record, and he was a frequent visitor.

Beard: That’s lovely.

Lewallen: Glass was not embraced by the music world at first. He really became known through the art world. Klaus set up his first European tour where he performed in galleries. So, I learned a lot and I sometimes would go on studio visits with Klaus. However, I had two little children and didn’t really have the kind of freedom that he did, I always had to run home and cook dinner. But that was my entry into the contemporary art world and became the basis for what I love.

Ellen Fullman: residency from January 1–31, 2016; The Lab, San Francisco.

Ellen Fullman: residency from January 1–31, 2016; The Lab, San Francisco.

Beard: How did he sustain the space without resources?

Lewallen: Well, it was very low-key, we didn’t spend a lot of money. But he did sell some things. I remember once he sold a Chuck Close, one of the early black and white portraits for $10,000, and we had a party, I think.

Beard: I’m curious about your transition between West Coast and East Coast.

Lewallen: I moved to LA for personal reasons in about 1972, and I was teaching a couple of classes at Santa Monica College. Then I got a job at Cirrus Editions, which is a print publisher and gallery, and still is in business. Cirrus was printing artists like Ed Ruscha and Vija Celmins at the time as well as lots of younger LA artists. Anyway, that’s when I met Larry Gagosian, who nobody knew then. He had a poster gallery in Westwood and wanted to buy Vija Celmins’s long ocean lithograph from Cirrus. It’s a beautiful print. The edition had sold out but he would call all the time wanting to buy it, and I’d say, “You know, I have to tell you, we just don’t have any available.” He was relentless. And finally I said to Jean Milant, who was the Cirrus’s founder and director, “This guy is driving me crazy. Can’t you find a proof or something?” And he did. He actually found an artist’s proof. So one day Larry called and I said, “You’re not going to believe this, but we actually do have a print to sell you.” So then he had the gall to say, “Will you deliver it to me?”

Beard: [laughter] Entitled boys.

Lewallen: It turns out that I was living close to his shop, so I agreed. And the funny part is that [after he hired me] there was one month he couldn’t pay me, and he gave me that print, which I still have.

Beard: Are you kidding? Amazing.

Lewallen: And now it’s worth a good deal of money. [Laughter]

Beard: That is sweet; divine vindication.

Lewallen: I worked for Larry in his first gallery in Westwood. He used to let me bring my children to work when they weren’t in school, which I appreciated. Larry was more interested in the secondary market — buying and selling a Donald Judd, for example — than the exhibitions. And of course, that was the part I wasn’t interested in, so it worked out fine. [laughter] I remember one day Chris Burden came and wanted to air a TV “commercial” where he’d say, “Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Chris Burden!” He sat at my little desk at the Gagosian Gallery after it moved to La Cienega Boulevard, and together we called TV stations and bought ad slots. You could get a 2 a.m. slot for $50 or something. It was fun because, again, there was a lot of downtime, as there had been at Bykert, a lot of just talking to artists.

Beard: So who was coming to these shows, these West Coast Conceptual art exhibitions that were at Thomas Lewallen?

Lewallen: Well, when Larry moved to New York, I joined Morgan Thomas in her small gallery, which we renamed Thomas Lewallen. We showed a lot of Cal Arts artists. I was on unemployment at that point. [laughter] The gallery, a former apartment, consisted of two rooms and a little kitchen. We showed Doug Huebler, Jack Goldstein, Jon Borofsky, many interesting artists. We also rarely sold anything. But occasionally we had a little back room business. I remember selling a Duchamp box to somebody and that would kind of keep us going. You know, basically it was so inexpensive to live then. You didn’t need to make a lot of money. In late 1979 I left LA and came to San Francisco. I knew David Ross, Mark Rosenthal, and Michael Auping — all curators at the Berkeley Art Museum. One day Michael Auping called me and said “I’ve got a job for you: my job as MATRIX curator, because I’m leaving and going to the Ringling Museum.” It was so much less competitive then. I think there were only three people who were up for that job.

Barbara Kruger: MATRIX/Berkeley 100; August 15–October 21, 1986; University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Photos: Ben Blackwell.

Barbara Kruger: MATRIX/Berkeley 100; August 15–October 21, 1986; University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Photos: Ben Blackwell.

Beard: I did so much archiving of the history of the MATRIX Program as well as of Berkeley Art Museum’s history, and I marveled at the fact that it could be so spontaneous at that time, that you could put together a show so quickly…

Lewallen: Well, that was the excitement of it. And that’s gone. But that was how the program was conceived and how I ran it. We never even listed an opening date, because we never knew for sure when a show was going to open! It always had to be fit in around other things so we’d say something like “late February.” In terms of artists, due to my limited budget I had to try to piggyback on other things that were happening — for example, Crown Point Press had invited Francesco Clemente to make prints and, therefore, I invited him to do a show. He came straight from India, where he lived part time, and brought with him wonderful paintings on paper mounted on cloth that formed the exhibition. I never could afford to fly an artist out so I had to be creative in that way. And Jim Elliott insisted that there be more than one show at a time, which would overlap so there’d always be something on view in the gallery. MATRIX, which he founded at the Wadsworth Antheneum, was the first continuing program of contemporary art exhibitions in a museum, after MOMA’s Projects series (which was sporadic rather than continuous). MATRIX was Jim Elliott’s baby.

Beard: Floors, ceilings, and walls. [Referring to James Elliott’s founding text for MATRIX in 1978, in which he says: “The core of the MATRIX project is a small gallery (Gallery 1) in which the four walls and floor are considered as five separate exhibition units for the presentation of a series of small to moderately scaled one-person exhibitions and performances.”] You pulled off some pretty weird, wild projects there. Like Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s Newsroom — Sultan and Mandel practically lived in the museum for the duration of the show. And Tom Marioni’s Studio performance-cum-exhibition — there were just so many.

Lewallen: Some of those shows stand out in my memory more than others.

Beard: Barbara Kruger’s project?

Lewallen: That was a great project. It was before she was very well known. She designed a billboard with the words, “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” which depicted a little girl touching the bicep of a little boy. We were able to rent billboards in several locations in Berkeley and Oakland. Subsequently, she created the same poster in different countries, like in Israel. Its meaning changed according to the context.

Beard: And above the UC pool.

Lewallen: That’s right. Barbara was great to work with. In fact, with very few exceptions, I always had a good experience working with artists.

Beard: And you showed a lot of women artists as well.

Lewallen: Not as many as I probably should have, but I tried. I don’t really think I was on the forefront in that area.

Beard: But you managed to do a lot in a climate where it was difficult. I was thinking of Marcia Tucker.

Lewallen: I remember when Marcia came out to the museum, I was asked to give her a tour. She asked, “How much money do you make?” And then she said, “Well, how much does so-and-so make,” referring to someone who was senior to me — because I was the lowest paid on the curatorial staff. And then she said, “Does he or she work harder than you?” And I said, “no.” And she continued, “Well, shouldn’t you be paid the same?” And I thought, “Oh, wow, that’s a radical idea!” She founded The New Museum with that philosophy. And for a time at The New Museum everybody got paid the same amount. That was a revelation. There were certain people who opened my eyes. She was one. Another was Miriam Shapiro. I was a student when Paul Brach was hired to be the head of the art department at UC San Diego. Miriam, his wife, was a force of nature. She encouraged me to go back to school. I had gotten a BA, had a child, and I really didn’t know what I was doing. She said, “You better go back to school, you’re not always going to have such a nice smile.” That made an impression and I followed her advice. The thing is, Dena, I never had a plan. People now have plans, and I don’t think it’s bad to have a plan. I just didn’t have one.

Akio Suzuki and Aki Onda: ke i te ki, September 16, 2015; The Lab, San Francisco. Photos: Tomo Saito.

Akio Suzuki and Aki Onda: ke i te ki, September 16, 2015; The Lab, San Francisco. Photos: Tomo Saito.

Beard: I think this shows through. The Fault Lines exhibition at Kadist revealed that sensibility. It was rigorously articulated and researched, but the effect of living through these projects and ideas and dealing with art as an ongoing conversation — a part of an everyday life experience, this shows in your work. It’s not necessarily a set of strategies or an agenda of any sort.

Lewallen: I kind of fell in love with the generation of artists who I worked with. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. For example, my initial assignment in San Francisco was at SFMOMA. Suzanne Foley asked me to create a chronology for the catalog of her show Space/Time/Sound: Conceptual Art in the Bay Area, the Seventies. The chronology was modeled on Lucy Lippard’s Six Years: the Dematerialization of the Art Object. I tracked Conceptual activities that took place in the Bay Area over the decade. It was an eye-opener, because I knew very little about art in the area before moving here. Through that project I continued my engagement with the kind of art that I was involved in both in New York and LA. I had formed a community of artists in my mind. I don’t want to be stuck in a particular time period and genre but that was the art that excited me and so I found various ways to focus on it and the art that followed in the same spirit. But certainly if you look at the MATRIX program, it was much broader than that.

Beard: It’s easier when there’s not this massive [amount of] time spent. I think there’s something a little overdetermined and self-serious about exhibitions now; you spend years, whereas then it was a couple months.

Lewallen: In fact, Jim would insist that we don’t plan MATRIX shows too far in advance in order to maintain flexibility. He’d get annoyed if I was scheduling more than six months out. He’d say, “We don’t need to talk about that yet.” And sometimes that was a problem because you couldn’t always be that loose. But generally I think it was an asset. I realize that I got something significant out of almost every show I did, even if it wasn’t exactly what I would’ve done if I’d had more funds to work with.

Beard: It’s a curious sensibility that’s changed in museums nowadays and even in alternative art institutions. I get to be super flexible with The Lab because it’s just me.

Lewallen: Right, you can pretty much do what you want.

Beard: We just did an artist talk on three days’ notice. The beauty of being able to respond very quickly and spontaneously, to keep it open to all these different interpretations, is crucial. I think organizations should constantly question how they determine value. We were talking a little bit about this over lunch the other day — the importance of having a conversation internally where everyone sits down and talks about what programs they’re interested in and why. I think those cross-departmental conversations have been taken out of the thought process.

Lewallen: Well, yeah, I think it’s a great thing when that happens. I’m not familiar with other museums, you know. I’m one of the rare people who’ve never worked at but one museum. But, for all the bureaucracy around scheduling exhibitions, I don’t think there is enough time for curators to research and develop shows and projects. What you’re doing is so interesting because you’re able to put into practice the kind of spontaneity that is very difficult to do in a museum, at least from what I know. And you’ve adopted that attitude and returned it to the alternative space. Alternative spaces were meant to accommodate a loose framework. But alternative spaces lost their support and most didn’t survive, or else they almost didn’t survive — like The Lab, which was basically limping along, if that, when you took the helm. Did you have a basic idea? [laughter] I mean, you must have. You thought about this a lot, I know. What was your ideal scenario for The Lab?

Beard: Perhaps problematically, I had a very strict conception of what I wanted to do, whether it was in a museum or if it was in an alternative art space. I simply wanted to work with an artist so that the system I created to frame the exhibition, to make the project happen, was completely and utterly affected by the art itself.

Xara Thustra: Retrospective Divestiture, October 23–25, 2015; The Lab, San Francisco.

Xara Thustra: Retrospective Divestiture, October 23–25, 2015; The Lab, San Francisco.

Lewallen: Rather than imposing your own agenda on it, which is what happens too much in curating.

Beard: Exactly. Instead of putting the cart before the horse, it’s actually letting the art dictate how I work. And for many reasons, it is always a relational project — between the artist and curator, between the artist and the installation crew, between the graphic designers and the curator, that all effects how the exhibition is viewed. You can go into exhibitions and smell it on the walls. It’s invisible and yet visible, all of those relationships. We know it more because we’ve been in that system, but certain kinds of relationships are materialized in that way — the work is changed by the conditions of the space and the parameters that are given to the artist — these show something that the art couldn’t on its own. I want to allow the way that the exhibition is held by the space and by the institution to reveal something about the artwork itself.

Lewallen: So it’s a back and forth. It starts with the idea, the artists, and the artists’ work. The artists in turn respond to the situation. I mean, that’s the ideal situation, where you’re both really getting something important out of this experience. We’re both agreeing that this idea of letting the art or the artist lead the project with your input and the back-and-forth-ness of it — but basically taking the lead that way, which I think we both do. Do you ever have to say no? I mean, how do you say no?

Beard: Oh, God. That’s the really hard part. This has been where The Lab has really changed me and changed my ways of working: I have to say no a lot more. And it’s not mediated by “The Museum Says No,” it has to come from me directly. And so what I end up doing a lot is fore-fronting a sense of not only my own taste and my flawed subjectivity, but also a shared sense of dignity. I’m making very transparent my role within the space, like how I raise money, how I dictate terms. But the artist has to also dignify my labor.

Lewallen: So you lay it out?

Beard: I lay it out. The important thing is to use resources wisely — funding, time, space — considering how expensive and hard it is for artists to live in cities now.

Lewallen: Especially here.

Beard: Especially here. It’s really difficult to make a living. It is crucial that I highlight those stakes alongside the more playful, experimental parts of the project, so that when I raise money I’m distributing it well and with care.

Lewallen: Do you think there is a future for artists here in the Bay Area? Is it just going to be a place where there are very important institutions but there aren’t really any artists? Paris was like that until fairly recently. It was known as a great place to see art in museums and galleries but lacked a vital artists’ scene.

Beard: I think that’s a problem that every city is going to have to address eventually. This kind of strange economic model has taken hold since the early ‘90s where cities become these very homogenous centers of blue-chip art, fancy restaurants, and high class shopping and all that, but they’re being stripped of the lower and middle classes, and therefore, subculture. I’m trying to model for places like SFMOMA how easy it is just to maintain one iota of their local artist communities. Just putting three artists on the payroll at The Lab —

Lewallen: Helps.

Beard: Yes! I mean, I literally can pay people a living wage to stay here for a year and make art. If museums were to put a few artists on the payroll per year it would allow a few more artists to continue making work in the Bay Area. Unless you have independent sources of income it’s no longer possible to have a part-time job and a studio practice.

Lewallen: I guess the only artists who can really make it are those who have teaching jobs. The Bay Area has always had a lot of teaching opportunities in the various art schools, universities, and colleges.

Beard: But the adjunct problem is difficult too. Because that’s not a living wage either. As an artist in the Bay Area, you’re in this bind of constantly battling a real economic, systemic problem while also trying to find the time to create something ambivalent and weird and not as overtly concerned with those issues.

Lewallen: That’s the other way of looking at it. I mean, as much as I love New York — and I do, I spend a lot of time there — it’s nice to get away from the hyper-commercialism. Here you can have a kind of healthy distance. And that’s always been the case. The area attracts the kind of artists who really don’t feel that they have to have a huge commercial success to be happy and satisfied.

Would you say most of your audience is composed of artists or musicians?

Beard: Yes. I’d say about 40% would be people who practice making art in one way or another. And I’m not really interested in distinctions between sound art and visual art. There are things I can put on and things I can’t put on.

Lewallen: Just from a practical point of view?

Beard: From a practical point of view. The main line that I draw in the sand is that I have to be able to pay artists a minimum. I don’t do a show where I can’t pay at least the W.A.G.E standard.

Jacqueline Gordon and Zackery Belanger: The Acoustic Deconstruction of 2626 Bancroft Way, May 30, 2015; The Lab, San Francisco.

Jacqueline Gordon and Zackery Belanger: The Acoustic Deconstruction of 2626 Bancroft Way, May 30, 2015; The Lab, San Francisco.

Lewallen: Do you have another institution, either current or past, that you are modeling yourself on? Or that you feel sort of represents the gold standard in what you’re trying to do? I mean, could it be like The Kitchen in New York?

Beard: The Kitchen is a great model. I think in many ways what I’m trying to do is very specifically responding to the needs of people in the Bay Area — I’m trying to say that museums and art spaces need to start paying artists an acceptable fraction of our overall budgets and we need to start dedicating more of our resources to opening up the boundaries of our galleries. Just give artists some freedom in those spaces, allow in some indeterminacy. I think I follow the precedent of places like La Mamelle and New Langton Arts — I mean, I never got to see them, but just the stories…

Lewallen: They were vital. And one by one, they folded. Site, ArtSpace, Tom Marioni’s Museum of Conceptual Art… so many. The other day I went to the Galerie de la Raza and was happy to see they’re still there!

Beard: Naomi Rincón Gallardo is currently working with SFMOMA to do an installation there, which I think is great! Frank Smigiel is partnering with Galerie de la Raza and other alternative spaces to produce these wilder shows.

Lewallen: That’s good. That’s smart. What has most surprised you since you took on this leadership of The Lab? I mean, that you weren’t expecting, good or bad? Is it more work than you thought it was ever going to be?

Beard: I would say it’s more pleasurable work. It’s also work that I can understand… I have no interest in being an art martyr in any sense of the word.

Lewallen: An art nun?

Beard: An art nun, yeah, precisely. There needs to be joy in it, there needs to be sex! I think what’s been surprising is being able to have so many different kinds of experiences over the course of a year. In many ways, it’s like you sitting in the Bykert gallery and being able to just talk to artists. That’s where things really take shape — you meet people and see people that you wouldn’t otherwise.

Lewallen: What is the length of a residency?

Beard: Well, right now we give three artists $25,000–$70,000 and I cut them a check every month for a year. But now what’s going to happen next is I’m actually going to give the option to put artists on payroll, give them healthcare, allow them to file for unemployment.

Lewallen: So is there an expectation or actually a necessity for them to come up with a project to be shown?

Beard: No, not at all.

Lewallen: But they might?

Beard: I have this pretty elaborate memorandum of understanding, which isn’t a contract but it charts out in some sort of sense that we are taking resources from the public trust. So what they do — and that’s part of why the surveillance camera at the top of The Lab broadcasts this live image of whatever’s happening in the space — is in some way making public the performance of how they do their work, how they use those funds, this time, our space.

Lewallen: So they’re using The Lab as a studio?

Beard: Yeah, it’s a studio, but it’s more than that — once they enter The Lab at the start of their residency, it’s an artist-run space. They have ten weeks to basically remodel whatever they don’t like about the institution, if they choose to. They can make a piece, or they can not make a piece. Or they can put — like Maria Eichhorn did in London — a sign in the window saying that The Lab is closed.

Lewallen: Like Robert Barry did in 1969.

Beard: Right, exactly. [laughter] I know, this is something that’s been done. But, we are continuing to make visible those processes and conversations, that sensibility.

Lewallen: That’s a huge commitment on your part, so you must have to have a pretty good vetting process. I mean, you’re giving an artist and amazing opportunity, a year of support, with no real demands. And you’re going to have to be interacting with that person or persons in a close way over a period of time. It must be difficult to choose.

Beard: It’s difficult to choose. It’s not charity work. I think of it as a part of my own practice and my own way of thinking. It’s a cross-germination of different ways of making art or exhibiting art or being with art. It’s the whole thing.

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