Meet Spring Issue 7 guest curator Benjamin Sutton – art critic, journalist, and independent curator based in NYC

Meet Spring Issue 7 guest curator Benjamin Sutton who, along with curating exhibitions in various galleries around NYC and his current Brooklyn neighborhood, works as the news editor for the online art and culture publication Hyperallergic. Having written for a variety of publications over the years, including artnet News and Brooklyn Magazine, Sutton has delved deep into each weird and wonderful corner of the art world. Whether he’s examining a protest at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, investigating the latest art theft, or covering activism at the Louvre, Sutton’s articles shine a light into the dark corners of the art world, giving his readers a much needed transparent look into current issues in the arts. Sutton, who has interviewed such artists as Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, gives us a glimpse into his experiences conversing with these artists about their current projects and artistic process. 

As Sutton writes on almost every aspect of the art world, he not only reviews exhibitions, but curates them as well. The journalist has applied what he calls his “curator brain muscles” on compelling exhibitions around NYC and Brooklyn at spaces such as Field Projects, where he curated Drunk-Tank Pink, a show with all works emphasizing the color pink. With such projects being as thought provoking as his writing, Sutton explains the crossover relationship of digesting artwork as a critic and as a curator. Join us as we dive into his career as an art journalist, critic and curator as he discusses the challenges of working in today’s fast paced news sector and shares with us his personal tips on how to conquer even the most overwhelming art fair. 

AMM: As an art critic and journalist, we would assume that you have a background in art and in writing. Did you study these subjects academically? What attracted to you to this career path?

BS: I did study art history as an undergraduate at McGill, though it was only my minor. My major was cultural studies, which essentially involved applying many of the same concepts and theories to popular culture instead of fine art. My journalism training has come entirely from experience, first as a writer and editor at the school newspaper, the McGill Daily, and subsequently as an editor at a string of art and culture publications in New York. Though I started out writing about many different art forms, including theater, film, dance, and music, there was always something especially challenging and satisfying for me about art writing. I think it’s partly because art is so conceptual, even when it takes the form of a painting or photograph, and there’s so much of an individual’s vision and psyche in each piece, it can be a very rich kind of conversation to engage with those ideas.

AMM: The collection of artists you have interviewed over the years is impressive to say the least, including the famous Takashi Murakami. Which was the most pleasantly surprising interview you have conducted? Which was the strangest?

BS: The most pleasantly surprising interview I’ve done was probably the one with Takashi Murakami. I think because he’s so famous, has been interviewed so many times, and has so many projects going on at any one time,

I expected him to give me really generic answers or resort to a kind of script. But after each question I asked him was relayed to him in Japanese by his translator, he would close his eyes for five seconds, lean back, then give a very thoughtful and earnest answer — often without opening his eyes again until he’d finished. He was very concentrated and serious about his answers in a way that felt very generous and thoughtful.

One of the strangest interviews I’ve done was with Jeff Koons, though not for any particularly interesting reason. He speaks like a New Age guru who makes his exceedingly expensive middlebrow artworks sound like utopian gifts to humanity.

My favorite strange interview was in 2015, with an artist from Texas whom I’d met a couple of years earlier, Christie Blizard — though it was mostly strange because of the brilliant and bizarre project we were discussing. Christie was making regular trips from San Antonio to New York City so she could brandish her text paintings in the backgrounds of major TV networks’ morning shows, Good Morning America and the Today Show. Plenty of people show up to the places where these shows are filmed every morning with signs — typically things along the lines of “I Love You Mom” — and Christie saw in this practice an opportunity to show her art to an enormous and attentive audience. On the face of it, it’s a very strange idea, but there’s also a very sensible logic to it: Christie was simply looking for a new way to put contemporary paintings in front of millions of people.

AMM: Having worked in the field for several years, what notable changes have you seen in regards to news consumption or journalistic approach?

BS: The most striking change has been the shift toward a more news-driven industry. For a long time, art writing was primarily dominated by reviews of exhibitions, interviews with artists and curators, and art history essays, and while I think those things still make up a lot of the writing about art, news has really taken the forefront, especially online. This can take many forms, from reports on record-setting auctions and forgery scandals, to more gossipy stories about celebrities trying to make art or disputes over copyright infringement and fair use. I think this has been a very interesting shift because it has opened up the art world — which is rooted in interpersonal relationships, hierarchies of connoisseurship, and opaque power systems — to the mechanisms of journalism, which are all about truth and transparency. It’s an interesting clash of priorities.

AMM: Has there ever been a time when a story you wrote became controversial or drew negative attention? What was your reaction to this experience?

BS: More times than I’d like. One particular story comes to mind because it’s fairly uncharacteristic for me. I mentioned off-handedly in a meeting with my fellow editors at Hyperallergic that an artist whose work I think is really terrible — and whom I’ve never met — had sent me a friend request on Facebook. They encouraged me to write a short article about this weird social interaction where an artist I don’t know or respect wanted to be my Facebook “friend”, for whatever reason, and how I might handle it. The resulting article, “12 Reasons Why I Can’t Be Facebook Friends with This Artist”, touched off a lot of conversation, some of it very critical, partly because I think it spoke earnestly about a kind of social media hustle that we all participate in to one degree or another to promote our work.

AMM: There is so much happening in the art world right now, or rather, the world at large. News travels at a moment’s notice, thanks to Twitter, Buzzfeed, and Instagram. Being an art critic and journalist, how do you keep up with the pace?

BS: I’m not sure I’d call it keeping up with the pace; it feels more like constantly trying to catch up. In any case, for me it’s a mix of social networks — Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, in that order of importance — emails, an RSS reader, and conversations in our office. This multi-pronged approach definitely helps me to keep an eye on lots of different scenes and stories, though it also wreaks havoc on my attention span.

Field Projects Gallery‘s Show 17: ‘Drunk-Tank Pink’ (2013-14), curated by Benjamin Sutton. Features selected artists: Xinyi Cheng, Hai-Hsin Huang, Heather McPherson, Christopher Moss, Maria Pithara, Rob Raphael, Christopher Rodriguez, Kelli Thompson, and Jessica Weiss.

Field Projects Gallery‘s Show 17: ‘Drunk-Tank Pink’ (2013-14), curated by Benjamin Sutton.

AMM: You’ve written several articles bringing to light recent issues concerning censorship in the arts, specifically on online platforms such as Facebook. As many artists often face challenges with censorship on social media, can you give us your thoughts on online nudity policies?

BS: I don’t think this issue needs to be as complicated as it’s become, but because Facebook controls the two networks where this is most often an issue — Facebook and Instagram — and it has a “censor first, ask questions later” attitude, it frequently creates situations where artists’ work gets censored or people who are simply posting artworks they love suddenly get censored. Part of the problem is that there’s very little oversight to how social networks censor images; if you disagree with the removal of one of your images, you can appeal it and exchange messages with someone from the company, but you have no power. In a perfect world, social networks’ nudity policies would allow for nudity in art — a blurry category, I admit — and there would be some kind of nudity division or committee that could make decisions and hear appeals.

AMM: The ever-popular art fair can be an overwhelming and complex beast to conquer. What are some of your tips for navigating fairs like the Armory Show or Art Basel, which have an insurmountable number of things to see?

BS: I think as a social phenomenon, art fairs are kind of fascinating, but as occasions for looking at art, I loathe them. Trying to write smartly about art fairs is one of the least gratifying things I have to do, but it is a nice way to discover new artists and glean what’s happening in other cities, based on what the galleries from there are showing at a major fair like Art Basel Miami Beach, the Armory Show, or Frieze New York.

My three art fair survival tips are: always bring water and snacks because it’s an endurance test and you need to stay hydrated and energized; take lots of photos of artworks, labels, and checklists, because you’re not going to remember everything you see, but having photographic notes will be very helpful later; and lastly, when your eyes start to glaze over and your legs turn to jelly, try to find the video art section or screening area — art fairs are especially inhospitable for video art, but sitting in front of a projection for just ten minutes can help your eyes and brain recalibrate, and give your feet a rest.

AMM: When did you begin your curatorial endeavors? Tell us about the ups and downs of the first exhibition you curated.

BS: My curatorial endeavors began in the summer of 2012, when I was invited to co-curate Creative Nonfiction, the first anniversary exhibition of Kunsthalle Galapagos, a gallery in DUMBO, Brooklyn. It was a really fun and challenging exhibition to work on because there were so many curators involved — we were seven in all — but it was a very gratifying experience that got me interested in doing more curating.

My first solo curatorial project actually came out of the Kunsthalle Galapagos show, when one of the co-curators of Creative Nonfiction, Jacob Rhodes, asked me if I’d like to curate the annual open call exhibition at the gallery he co-founded with Keri Oldham in Chelsea, Field Projects. That was very fun, but also extremely challenging because I had to go through more than 100 submissions and not only pick the work that I found the most compelling, but then also refine that selection to a group of works that would hang well together, and then pare it down to a reasonable number of works to hang in a very small gallery. The resulting show, Drunk-Tank Pink, was an incredible learning experience and very validating.

Installation view, “The Monstrous Self,” with Sigrid Sarda’s “Rule 34: Charm” in the center, curated by Benjamin Sutton (2014, Spring Break Art Show)

AMM: How has your curatorial practice influenced your writing? Would you say curating has changed the way you navigate an artist’s body of work as an art critic?

BS: Working as a curator has made me appreciate the many different approaches one can take to curating an exhibition or a selection of one artist’s work, which I had thought about previously in my writing, but I think having been on the other side of that relationship has given me a different appreciation of the curator’s role. The way I like to think of the distinction is that being a critic and a curator involve many of the same brain muscles, but for different purposes. As a curator, you’re trying to develop and highlight certain ideas and concepts through framing and juxtaposition, but you don’t necessarily have to follow those ideas through to their conclusions; it’s more about provoking the viewer to consider certain ideas or draw certain connections. As a critic, ideally, you’re examining the connections the curator has foregrounded (and maybe some they haven’t), following those ideas wherever they lead, and then asking how compelling or well-rounded they are.

AMM: Do you feel that, in order to work in art journalism, it is essential to live in a larger city like NYC, LA, or London? How important is it for you to be able to meet with artists in person or to see their artwork in the flesh?

BS: I think it depends what you mean by “work”. If you mean have a full-time job that you can live off, then yes. I think the world’s major art capitals are the only places that have big enough concentrations of artists, galleries, museums, art schools, collectors, and auction houses to sustain full-time work in arts journalism. That said, I think there are plenty of ways to work as an art journalist in more nimble part-time, non-profit, or volunteer ways in smaller cities where there isn’t as big of a community but there are still lots of interesting things happening. There are plenty of excellent sites in the US doing that, especially Pelican Bomb in New Orleans, BmoreArt in Baltimore, and Glasstire in Texas.

As for being able to meet artists in person or see their art in person, I think it depends why you’re writing about their work. If it’s for a review, it’s absolutely essential to be able to see the work in person. For more in-depth interviews, being able to meet in person and do a studio visit is nice, but I’ve done very thorough and rewarding interviews over the phone and via email, too. I find studio visits incredibly stimulating and rewarding, although I think they exercise my curator brain muscles more than my critic muscles.

AMM: Give us a taste of the art scene in Brooklyn.What is happening in the creative community there that isn’t happening anywhere else?

BS: That’s a tricky one, because the dominant issues for artists in Brooklyn — affordable studio space and gentrification, the competition for getting gallery representation, and essentially how to sustain an art practice in a hyper-capitalist society — are common to artists in most major cities and certainly other parts of New York. I think something fairly unique here is that there really is a sense of it being a community or a scene: artists in Brooklyn know that they have thousands of peers right here, and that if they want to organize something — a protest, a benefit auction, a big open studios event, etc. — they have the numbers to make it happen. I don’t think they mobilize that power as often as they could and it’s certainly not as unified and monolithic a scene as I’m making it sound, but it’s there.

AMM: When it comes to truly inspiring art, what part of NYC never lets you down?

BS: Most weekends I spend one day in one of three neighborhoods with a big concentration of galleries: Chelsea, Bushwick, or the Lower East Side. My favorite gallery days are the ones I spend on the Lower East Side; there’s such a nice mix of spaces there — from shoebox-sized artist-run spaces to young galleries with adventurous programming and enormous blue-chip galleries — and because there’s enough distance and other types of businesses between them, you don’t reach visual saturation as quickly as in Chelsea and you can eat and drink lots of delicious things as you go.

AMM: Have you been to any exhibitions recently that you found particularly thought provoking?

BS: The best exhibition I’ve seen recently actually involved a day trip to a very strange and somewhat tacky sculpture park in suburban New Jersey. Grounds for Sculpture, which is a museum and outdoor art space created by the artist Seward Johnson (infamous for his giant Marilyn Monroe sculpture), currently has a major retrospective of Joyce J. Scott, a sculptor from Baltimore who works primarily with glass beads and other materials historically looked down on for being decorative or feminine. Her work is incredibly powerful, dark, and funny, much of it dealing with difficult issues of racism and misogyny. It was a delight to see so much of her work, but also made me want to see a major New York museum give her an even bigger show.

AMM: Do you have any projects coming up that you would like to share with us?

BS: Beyond my day-to-day writing and editing, I don’t have any immediately upcoming projects. I’ve been on a curating hiatus for the last two years, but I would like to get back into it in the coming year — though I’m not sure exactly what form that will take.

AMM: What are you reading right now?

BS: Because so much of my day is spent reading about art and the news, my non-work reading tends to be fiction or nonfiction that has nothing to do with art. I’m currently reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which isn’t as canonical in Canada, where I went through high school and college, as it is in the US. I have been wanting to read it for years because it’s always been a blind spot in my education and it comes up so often — it’s such a cornerstone of the shared cultural foundation in the US. In fact, just yesterday I visited an exhibition of Gordon Parks’ photographs at Jack Shainman Gallery, and there were two images based on scenes from Invisible Man. I’m about a third of the way through the book and completely hooked.

Find out more about Benjamin’s work: www.hyperallergic.com/author/benjamin-sutton/

See Benjamin’s curated selection for ArtMaze Mag Spring Issue 7: www.artmazemag.com/spring-issue-7/

Introduction written and interview conducted by Christina Nafziger for ArtMaze Mag.

First annual ‘CURRENT: Gowanus’ art exhibition and fundraiser curated by Benjamin Sutton (2014, Gowanus Loft, Brooklyn) Over 40 artworks presented, including pieces by: Kat Chamberlin, James Ewart, Tony Geiger, Erik Hougen, Sarah Hummel Jones, Shura Skaya, Andrew Smenos, Caroline Wells Chandler and others.