Some people need a red carpet rolled out in front of them in order to walk forward into friendship. They can't see the tiny outstretched hands all around them, everywhere, like leaves on trees. – Miranda July
In reflecting on my role as a mentor to students and emerging curators, I drift off into memories of my greatest mentor, Marilyn Houlberg. Arriving in Chicago in 2000, fresh out of grad school, I was on a mission to meet her. My master’s thesis on feminism and the art of Haitian Vodou had her influence all over it, and I desperately wanted to work with her. That chance came about when I was asked by African Arts Magazine to write an exhibition review of a show she curated at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art. Marilyn, a professor of art history, theory and criticism at SAIC and The Queen Mother on all things Haitian Vodou, didn’t know a thing about me, but she took a chance and let me write the article – a really big deal for me, as a new graduate with little experience.
After the review was published, she left a message on my voicemail that was so sweet and supportive that I didn’t erase it for years. From that point forward, Marilyn took me under her wing and gave me opportunities which, thinking back, are somewhat unimaginable. More than the incredible kindness she showed me, and the scholarly publications, assistant curator posts and lecturing opportunities brought my way, I couldn’t wait for the next incredible story about her adventures traveling in Haiti and Nigeria. A favorite of mine was the time she was held up on a hillside north of Port-au-Prince and talked her way out of it by explaining she was a Vodou priestess who could put in a good word with the lwa (Vodou spirits) if these young men would let her go. They all chatted for a bit and parting ways amicably. After a day of working and telling stories in her Pilsen house and gallery, she’d send me home with pastries from a neighborhood bakery.
I guess that’s a thing, mentoring with pastries.
So now, as a director and curator of the galleries at Columbia College, I pass on what Marilyn gave me, mentoring emerging artists/curators. In the past two weeks alone, I have worked with six of my professional mentees: emerging curators and arts administrators Gibran Villalobos and William Ruggiero of the collective JGV/WAR (who I mentored through the Chicago Artist Coalition’s HATCH program); Matthew Robinson, our student curatorial intern at DEPS who – look-out – has two shows happening on campus in 2014; La Keisha Leek whose acclaimed How to Make a Hood exhibition just closed at the Arts Incubator recently; and Kristen Kula and Marcela Andrade, who were in the first Curatorial Practicum class I taught at Columbia College Chicago and transformed their class projects into professional exhibitions at Columbia’s galleries.
When I caught up with Gibran and Wil over Cuban coffee and pastries the other day (I guess that’s a thing, mentoring with pastries), they had loads of exciting updates for me, talking a mile a minute. I thought, do these guys need me? They’re kicking butt. However, it soon became clear what they did need – guidance on things that people entering any field need – What’s the next step? Where do we go from here? And, in their case, how do we continue to grow together as a collective and apart as individuals? I asked them questions – some difficult to answer and possibly anxiety-inducing – so that they could determine their own next steps. Then I did my usual, offering curatorial possibilities, job leads and encouragement. I believe that is called the Iron Fist / Velvet Glove approach.
...more than the contacts and job leads I may have, I want to give them courage.
For Marcela and Kristen, both recent grads, they are hot on the job hunt and often write to me to get the inside scoop on open positions. I’ll put in a personal note if I know the hiring manager. Since they took my class over a year ago, they have consistently checked in with me; ambitious and fearless, they are excellent at scooping up good gigs. Marcela and I recently chatted about interviewing skills and I shared some of my own botched-interview horror stories as well as the traits I look for when I’m interviewing someone. As I reassured her that interviewing should be the least of her worries since she’s a pro, I saw her shoulders relax.
If I am at all effective at mentoring, supporting, nurturing people now, it is because I had the best role model, Marilyn, and many more I don’t have the space to acknowledge, showed generosity, trust and sheer encouragement that I try to live up to as a mentor. In this spirit, when someone seeks advice, I don’t want them to leave empty handed; more than the contacts and job leads I may have, I want to give them courage. The arts are incredibly competitive and often times isolating; it’s hard to break in, and recognizing my current privileges, I need to share what I have. Further, I am indebted to my mentees. With talents and skills that surpass what I possessed at their age, they keep me on my toes. Together we encourage each other to be bold, take risks and be fierce.
Neysa Page-Lieberman is the director and curator of the Department of Exhibitions, Performance and Student Spaces (DEPS) at Columbia College Chicago. She also designed and teaches Columbia’s first course on curatorial theory and practice. Outside of Columbia, Neysa lectures at the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago on the Museum’s collections. Specializing in contemporary, feminist and African diaspora art, she has produced over 100 exhibitions, collaborating with artists and curators from around the globe.
Curatorial highlights from her tenure at Columbia include Not Ready to Make Nice: Guerrilla Girls in the Artworld and Beyond, 2012 and currently on a national tour through 2015, Dis/Believer: Intersections of Science and Religion in Contemporary Art, 2010, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons - Life Has Not Even Begun, 2009 and Vodou Riche: Contemporary Haitian Art, 2007. She is a Mentor Curator for the Chicago Artists Coalition’s 2014 HATCH program. She received her masters in art history from Indiana University specializing in contemporary art of the African diaspora. Her most recent curatorial project of 2014, produced with co-curator Amy Mooney, was a four-month, multi-venue exhibition and performance series called RISK: Empathy, Art and Social Practice. Her current work focuses on feminist theory and practice explored through socially and politically engaged art.