One Foot on Each Path that Led to Curation

Q & A with BFA Alum Elise Armani
Photograph of BFA '17 Alum Elise Armani
BFA '17 Alum Elise Armani

“I became increasingly interested in the career of a curator. Unfamiliar with the term prior to college, a professional role in which you could conceptualize and organize exhibitions was incredibly intriguing to me.”

The Department of Art is pleased to congratulate Elise Armani (BFA ’17) on her recent completion of a Master of Arts degree in Art History and Criticism from Stony Brook University in New York. We caught up with Elise to discuss her path from Minneapolis to New York, what's next on her to-do list, and the importance of mentors along the way to discovering your passion. 

Q: You graduated in 2017 with a dual degree (BFA/BA) in studio art and gender, women & sexuality studies, plus a minor in art history. Talk about #UMNdriven! How did you balance all of your interests during your time at the U?

A: Applying and entering college, I had always loved the visual arts, but I was also skeptical of my own compatibility with the life of a professional artist. In my freshman year, I was fortunate to take courses in both the art department and the GWSS department. With one foot on each path, I applied to the BFA program and also declared a double major in GWSS, but I remained unclear on how I might bring these two disciplines together. 

Fate would have it that I was incredibly fortunate to receive Judith Katz as my advisor in GWSS. The first time I met with her she proposed introducing me to Howard Oransky, Director of the Katherine E. Nash Gallery, who at the time was working on the exhibition Covered in Time and History: The Films of Ana Mendieta. Judith fatefully suggested I might be interested in Mendieta’s work and could perhaps be of assistance to Howard, who would go on to become one of my most influential mentors in college. 

Q: Congratulations on completing your MA in Art History & Criticism! What initially sparked your interest in curation?
A: When I was introduced to Howard, he proposed that I could assist with Covered in Time and History: The Films of Ana Mendieta in the capacity of an undergraduate student liaison, representing the perspective of the student body and sharing news of the exhibition with my peers. I suggested integrating the exhibition into the First-Year Experience course so that all incoming freshmen would be required to visit and become acquainted with the Katherine E. Nash Gallery. 

As I grew more familiar with Mendieta’s work and the plans for the exhibition, I began writing monthly blog posts where I shared my research on Mendieta’s art practice and applied the new feminist theories I was learning in my GWSS courses as a lens to her work. 

I became increasingly interested in the career of a curator. Unfamiliar with the term prior to college, a professional role in which you could conceptualize and organize exhibitions was incredibly intriguing to me. When I began uncovering really interesting archival materials in my research on Mendieta, Howard suggested I curate something, using these archival pieces as a complement to the Nash exhibition.

Through Howard, I was able to propose an archival exhibition to the T.R. Anderson Gallery in Wilson Library and began work on my first exhibition, Ana Mendieta: Documents on a Life in Art, which opened in 2014 concurrently with Covered in Time and History: The Films of Ana Mendieta at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery.

Q: As an undergrad, what other opportunities did you pursue in gaining hands-on experience in the curatorial field?  
A: By the time I was approaching graduation, I had well-established my goal of becoming a curator, interning at the Weisman Art Museum, the Minnesota Museum of American Art, and the Minnesota Historical Society, and declaring a minor in art history. While it is traditional for BFA students to create thesis works of art for a group exhibition in their senior year, I had largely stopped making my own work, preferring the role of a curator to an artist, and sought an alternative to participating.

At this point, I had been granted the opportunity to work on other exhibitions but hadn’t yet had the opportunity to propose my own exhibition from scratch. With a year till graduation, I reached out to Howard to pitch an exhibition on queer artists in the Midwest considering the idea of “home,” and applied for an Undergraduate Research Opportunities (UROP) grant. Howard generously offered to mentor me through this process, and the following spring Making Room opened in the Quarter Gallery at Regis Center for Art.  

Q: What path did you follow after graduating from the U?
A: After graduation, I spent the summer as the inaugural Weisberg Curatorial Fellow working with curator Diane Mullin at the Weisman Art Museum before moving to Dallas for a year to participate in the McDermott Internship in Contemporary Art at the Dallas Museum of Art. While in Dallas, I applied to graduate school and accepted an offer at Stony Brook University in New York. I am now pursuing a PhD in art history & criticism and am independently curating in Queens, NY.   

Looking back now after having met other curators and art historians, I have learned how unique my experience at the U was in that I was introduced to my future career and gained critical experience in pursuit of it. I greatly cherish the support and welcome I received from Howard Oransky and the Katherine E. Nash Gallery staff.

Q: What's next on your to-do list? 
A: After some COVID-related delays, I finished my MA this December, writing my thesis on Kazuko Miyamoto, an incredible Japanese American artist and, serendipitously, a peer of Ana Mendieta’s from Artists In Residence Gallery (A.I.R.). Like many women artists, and especially immigrant women and women of color, Miyamoto’s career has been largely overlooked, despite her proximity to and collaboration with many well-recognized artists. Coming full circle, in my research on Miyamoto I have found myself revisiting many of the same sources I referenced in my Mendieta research at the U years ago. 

In addition to my research, I have the pleasure of teaching undergraduate courses in art history and also try to maintain an active curating and writing practice on the side. I recently co-curated an exhibition with curatorial-duo Passing Fancy, which opened in Shanghai in 2020, titled More, More, More, and also published an interview with Minneapolis-based artist Piotr Szyhalski in the Brooklyn Rail this summer. 

For the immediate future, my focus is on preparing for my Qualifying Exams which will allow me to advance to PhD candidacy in 2021. As far as goals go, I would love to curate another exhibition in Minneapolis soon should the opportunity present itself! 

Q: How have you been staying grounded during COVID-19? What’s your recipe for self-care?
A: I’m fortunate to have a comfortable apartment where I have been taking great pleasure in nesting (read: rearranging our furniture every few weeks) and spending time with my partner and our dogs, Miro and Lando. We rode the sourdough bandwagon, joined a CSA, and have been enjoying trying lots of new recipes. Working from home is a continuous struggle, but I think I’ve finally fallen into a routine. Adjusting to teaching online was a challenge, but in the months since March, it has become a source of solace, community, and inspiration. 

I feel immense gratitude and guilt for having not been more directly impacted by the pandemic. Though my partner is an essential worker in the city, we’ve been able to stay safe, housed, and employed, as have our families in Minneapolis. I am acutely aware that this isn’t the case for so many people, and I try to center this awareness in my daily life. I am eternally grateful for my connections to organizers in New York and Minneapolis, including some fellow U alums, who have allowed me to participate in mutual aid efforts from afar and to stay informed.

Q: Any words of wisdom to current students at the U?
A: First, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention mentors Clarence Morgan, who was one of my first professors at the U and one of my favorites; Jane Blocker, who so generously talked me through applying to graduate school; and Kevin Murphy, who agreed to be my senior thesis advisor even though we’d never met! Also Lyndel King, Jamee Young, and Katie Covey at the Weisman Art Museum. There are so many wonderful, interesting, generous faculty and staff members at the U; get to know them!

My advice for students at the U in normal times is to take the courses that interest you and challenge your thinking. RIGS courses in particular can be so valuable for opening your worldview and introducing you to fulfilling career paths. 

Also, apply for everything! There are so many great opportunities for undergraduates to earn additional funding and experience. The Undergraduate Research Opportunities Grant (UROP) is an awesome resource that is fairly simple to apply for. Lastly, take advantage of office hours, they are there for your use even if you don’t have a specific question. Get to know your professors and share with them your thoughts and goals.

In COVID times: Be forgiving with yourself and others around you. Speaking as an instructor: ask for that extension! And don’t forget that your professors and peers are people too with their own complicated lives. 

Oh, and when you're on a deadline, nothing beats Hard Times Cafe!

Learn more about Elise's work:
Elise Armani is a New York-based curator, writer, and art historian. She has contributed to curatorial projects at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Walker Art Center, and the Weisman Art Museum. Her recent exhibitions include More, More, More (TANK Shanghai, 2020 and on view at Tank Shanghai through January 31, 2021), Body Ego (Dallas Museum of Art, 2018), and Cultivating the Garden (Walker Art Center, 2017). She is currently teaching and working towards her PhD in the Department of Art History & Criticism at Stony Brook University. Read Elise’s interview with Minneapolis-based artist Piotr Szyhalski in the Brooklyn Rail.


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