For this next interview in the SOCiAL: Art + People series, I sat down with theorist and curator Bill Kelley, Jr. and Director of Public Events for the Queens Museum of ArtPrerana Reddy to speak about Queens as a vanguard for the integration of socially-engaged art into a museum context, and as a case study for the changing role of the museum in civic life. The specific conditions of Queens have resonance with Los Angeles, and Prerana and Bill will further explore these concerns on Saturday, November 3rd in a free public program as part of Bill’s curatorial residency at 18th Street Arts Center.
Sue Bell Yank: So Bill, what was the impetus behind inviting Prerana [Reddy] to this event, and for hosting an event like this?
Bill Kelley, Jr.: I learned about Prerana’s work and the work of the Queens Museum of Art not here, not in the States and LA, but from my contacts in South America, that there was this woman from the Queens Museum roaming around the Andes, talking to these various communities in Cuenca and Quito [cities in Ecuador] and all these places. “You should get to know her, Bill, you should know her, why don’t you know who she is?” So when I went to New York a few years ago, I called her up. She picked me up and we went to the Queens Museum and met with the director, Tom Finkelpearl, and she showed me around Corona Plaza and talked to me about some of the projects. In some ways it reminded me about the migratory experience at some level with friends or contacts in Los Angeles, and this was a great model for discussing what the relationship was with museums and these types of immigrant communities. As someone who works blurring the line between theory and curatorial work, it prompted certain questions about curatorial practice, about the roles of museums, the roles of theory and discourse and all of these things. So when the opportunity came for Prerana to come to LA during my residency at 18th Street [Arts Center], I was really happy that she could come.
Sue Bell Yank: Prerana, maybe you can give us a little bit of an overview of some of the projects you are working on that Bill is interested in.
Prerana Reddy: Sure, and to pick up on why I was roaming the Andes…Queens Museum is pretty far out from Manhattan, far away from the center of the city. We realized that what we couldn’t do, nor should we do, is replicate a contemporary art museum model, or modern art museum model of what was happening in Manhattan. We didn’t have the same type of resources, we didn’t have the same type of visitor, and we didn’t have the same type of collection. So we went to the drawing board and said, “What can we do better than those museums?” or “What are we primed better to do?” and if our users–and we like to use the word “user” more than “visitor”–are mostly going to be people from the neighborhood around where we are, then how does that impact how we do business? How we curate, how we do programming, what we think the role of a museum is, and we happen to live in a neighborhood, Corona, that is highly, highly new immigrant, and is probably about 70% Latino. Not necessarily from any one particular place, there have been lots of waves of immigration. Probably 30-40 years ago you would have seen a lot of Dominicans, Columbians, and since the 80s more Mexican and Ecuadorian immigrants. So you have this kind of mosaic of people who might be united by being from Latin America, but at the same time are quite distinctive. Because the community is so transnational I felt that in order to understand the art and cultural context of our local community, I had to go back to Latin America and have that experience myself. I was lucky enough to know some Ecuadorian artists who had gotten government grants to work with Ecuadorian immigrants in my community and knew some of those people, and ended up hiring those people to be my guides. I had no agenda, I didn’t have any meetings lined up, but I had that curiosity. It did help me, when I came back, to be able to say, “I’ve been there. I know this landscape or I know something about the politics, something about the history of migration.” Something about the familiarity that changed fundamentally my relationship, I didn’t have to rely on my staff people who were from there. It says something to the community about the fact that the institution does care deeply, or that people from the institution do care deeply about their daily lives and not just audience development or getting people in through the door.
QMA collaborates with the Uni Project to bring a mobile reading room to the newly pedestrianized Corona Plaza, August 2012. Photo | Courtesy of the Queens Museum of Art.
Read the rest of the interview here.