Manon Slome

Conversation with Manon Slome, 24thOctober 2016 in Chelsea, New York

Manon Slome (PhD) is the Chief Curator of No Longer Empty(NLE). From 2002 to June 2008 she was the Chief Curator of the Chelsea Art Museum in New York. During that time, she curated and oversaw a program of some forty exhibitions, symposia and museum publications as well as monographs and scholarly essays. Prior to the CAM, Slome worked as a curator at the Guggenheim Museum for seven years and was a holder of a Helena Rubinstein curatorial fellowship at the Whitney Independent Study program. She has written widely on contemporary art and has recently completed The Aesthetics of Terrorpublished by Charta Press.

I am often asked about the future and whether NLE eventually wants a permanent home for its exhibitions.  I respond with an quote from artist Tanya Brugera“…while I was creating an institution {her Cátedra Arte de Conducta in Havana} I didn’t want to become one.”

 

NLE’s curatorial model of site specificity, community responsiveness and collaborative practice has evolved over the last eight years as a response to experience and the logistics of site.

 

Curation, for us, deals not only with the relationship between artworks but between art and the social, spatial and economic (to name but a few) conditions of a given site and the community in which it is situated.

 

Each exhibition begins with extensive research into the histories of the site and its location – and look at its current issues and demographics. We have now started having a local cultural advisory organisation whom we regularly meet with for three months prior to the exhibition both sharing and testing our research with them and listening – that listening is an important aspect of being guests in a community.  Then, through all our research, the themes of the exhibition begin to emerge.  At the same time, we are meeting with artists, both locally and city wide, developing ideas for new commissions and sometimes borrowing or expanding on existing work or projects.

 

Partnerships and collaborations are essential to our deep engagement with the surrounding communities and allow us also to create a multi discipline approach to the project so that the themes of the exhibition can be re interpreted through dance, music, spoken word and so on.

 

We reach out to local cultural and social service organisations, depending on the theme of the exhibition or the type of location. In the former Bronx Court House, for instance, we collaborated with the District Attorney’s Office to create a mock trial and in a former bank where the theme was around issues of exchange, we had a workshop and open dialogue between artists and union representatives.   As we are nomadic, such collaborations immediately introduce us to very wide audience flows. It also gives the other organisations the opportunity to increase their outreach to different audiences. We regard the exhibition as almost like the hub of a wheel and all these programmes and collaborations are ways into the exhibition.

 

With the Schomburg Centre for Black Learning, for example, within an exhibition that we produced in Sugar Hill, they curated a project about the Harlem Renaissance, which was also a special opportunity for their curators. The Classical Theatre of Harlem performed scenes from Macbeth within that exhibition as well, which brought in another group of people; poets and spoken word artists brought in yet another dimension to the exhibition

 

Such collaborations create very powerful cross-cultural experiences, which are mutually enriching.

 

For our exhibition, This Side of Paradise, at the Andrew Freedman Home in the Bronx,  we collaborated with the Bronx Museum, The Point, Wave Hill, Lehman College and on and on. Each organization was offered a bedroom unit in the former retirement home to showcase an artist or a project that would enable them to showcase their work to the thousands of visitors who came to see the exhibition. From the collaborative nature of that project, the Bronx Arts Alliance was formed so that each organization could amplify their presence in the Bronx and beyond. No Longer Empty is still a member of that!

 

The notion of partnership in itself is very, very strong. At one of our previous sites, The Broadway Housing’s new building Sugar Hill, where we were invited to do an exhibition to introduce the building and its mission to the community, we have had continuous engagement and have just finished our stewardship of their 2017 artist in residency program with artist Derek Fordjour.

 

Creating safe platforms through the arts for community dialogue is essential to us and it is not something traditional museums yet do well even though artists who work in social practice are beginning to make headway there. But it takes time and deep sensitivity to the host communities to get this right. The museum that has done this really well is the Queens Museum who was the first such institution to create a position for community engagement. We are partnering with them next Spring to mount a city wide exhibition of conceptual artist, Mel Chin which will fill the museum and then spread out over the city with projects and commissions in Times Square, subway stations and other sites still in discussion.

 

I think scale is a harder issue from a funding point of view because, particularly in New York, so much is tied to social status.  I was at the Guggenheim for many years and I could literally walk into the room and get $25,000, just like that. Just the name the Guggenheim opened the door, whereas with a smaller organization like No Longer Empty, funders really have to really believe in the mission and the funding is obviously a lot smaller. But we take paying our artists, speakers and educators according to W.A.G.E guidelines, which is something that even larger museums don’t do.

 

The majority of our funding comes from foundations, city agencies, our board and individual giving. Three years ago we had our first benefit and that’s been a relatively successful source of operating support. Because we are nomadic and don’t have to raise funds to support a building, we can be a lot leaner and do more with less something that is much harder for institutions with large buildings and staff to maintain.

 

Admission to our exhibitions and our programmes is always free, which is an essential part of who we are, because accessibility is at the heart of our mission and that has to be financial as well as intellectual.

 

http://www.nolongerempty.org

 

Vision:

No Longer Empty champions the power of art to unlock creative potential and cultivate imaginative responses to the aspirations and priorities of local communities seeking justice.

 

Mission:

Sited in distinctly urban settings, No Longer Empty (NLE) activates engagement with art and social issues through site-responsive exhibitions and community-centered educational programs throughout New York City and beyond.