Curating art once implied the streamlined task of organizing an exhibit—from selecting paintings to writing labels and deciding how to hang works on a wall. If there’s one thing the next generation of curators can agree on, however, it’s that today’s practice defies easy categorization.
In part it’s because contemporary art comes in so many different forms and occupies so many spaces, from traditional galleries to outdoor installations. “Contemporary art exists on no particular plane—it’s music, performance art, sound work, landscape painting, ceramics,” said Nicole Dial-Kay, who came on board with Breckenridge Creative Arts (BCA) as director of exhibitions and special projects in September. Simply put, it’s “art that is responsive to contemporary life.”
Dial-Kay previously served as education director at Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, where she curated the renowned digital arts festival, MediaLive. “I’ve never been in a role of just curator,” she said. “I’ve always been in a role that includes programming, exhibitions and performances—all the forms that contemporary art activation takes now.”
“I think the word curation has become so much broader, even in the past 10 years,” said BCA’s director of learning and engagement, Becca Spiro. During college she took Curating 101, where students decided on a theme, selected two artists, and wrote extensive catalog entries. “I remember thinking to myself—that’s not for me; I don’t really care about how the art is hung or how the labels look, I’m much more interested in working with the artists,” she recalls. But today, working with artists comes part and parcel with the job—which can include everything from planning an exhibition to programming films, performances and hands-on activities to “activate” the work and make it accessible.
“I think there’s a misunderstanding that curators are just paying attention to what’s happening in the international art market or local arts scene,” Dial-Kay said. “My personal philosophy is that if I’m not engaging the community, if I’m not providing an access point for anyone who walks in the door, I’m not doing my job.”
One of a growing list of curators who come from an educational background, she believes “there’s something valuable about not just understanding artwork but how individuals react to artwork that makes for effective programming. It doesn’t matter how great the artist on the wall is, if no one in town relates to it or understands it,” she said.
Knowing the community is key. “From the moment I arrived, I keep getting a list of what people here care about—nature, history, environment,” Dial-Kay said, referring to the community-generated “thematic narratives” that serve as BCA’s curatorial guidepost. “I’m in conversations with artists at Tank Studios, RedLine studio in Denver, people who are really doing great things in the contemporary art scene. Few have been given these prompts—about history, environment, a mountain town that has really unique interests and problems. Artists are finding that really compelling to respond to.”
Matthew Karukin, former owner-operator of the Breckenridge nightclub three20south, is well versed in how to curate music that will be popular for mountain audiences. His personal stamp is “trying to discover that emerging talent—newer acts and stuff that’s on the rise that we can get into our smaller venues before they’re too big and can’t play here.”
Since 2015, Karukin has put his talent to work directing the Breckenridge Music Festival’s Blue River Series, which in recent years has included performances by Mandolin Orange, Turnpike Troubadours, Robert Cray, The Motet, Amos Lee, Indigo Girls and Branford and Wynton Marsalis.
“We try to have a very diverse lineup for the series,” he said, noting that audiences range from ages 20 to 70. “We want to broaden our appeal to everybody, and make sure we present something different that they’re not seeing somewhere else.” Above all, quality is the emphasis. Breckenridge Music Festival has also been pushing boundaries by inviting touring artists to perform with members of the orchestra, including this summer’s first-time collaboration with The Motet.
“There’s always some sort of boundary-pushing or rule breaking—that’s what makes contemporary art cool, right?” Dial-Kay joked. But in all honesty, “sometimes pushing boundaries can be the most engaging way to present artwork, especially to broader audiences,” she said. Still, she believes a curator needs to make a good argument for what he or she wants to do—whether that means responding to a community need or showing artwork that is in line with an organization’s goals. “I would never present shocking art for shocking art’s sake,” she said. “That’s just irresponsible.”
Curating for a mountain community like Breckenridge is not the same as curating for an urban environment. “In the city it takes a lot more to shock someone,” said Spiro, citing a recent performance piece at Denver’s RedLine Contemporary Art Center that featured a kegel-operated smoothie. “Our threshold for offending people is lower than Denver.”
“Accessible but challenging I think will be our motto for a while,” said Dial-Kay. “Accessible doesn’t need to mean less—it just means there’s a bridge, there’s something people see and they respond to, they see themselves in and their interests in. I think art is for everyone,” she added. “It just takes some really responsive curating and programming, people willing to have conversations, and events that are more fun than academic.”
Certainly if there’s one thing high country dwellers and guests can relate to it’s fun—whether that means screaming down the slopes on a winter’s day, or hiking deep into the backcountry to cast a line in a pristine creek.
Enter Amy Kemp, founder of Elevate cospace—a workspace with desks for rent where entrepreneurs coalesce to work side-by-side and swap ideas. Kemp opened Elevate’s Frisco location in 2014, followed by the Breckenridge space with partners James Lee and Dave Knell in 2016. Since then, they have become epicenters for a growing list of offerings—from Badass Business Boot Camp, Startup Weekend, and Camp 9600 storytelling workshops to ski and ride meetups—curated specifically to address the needs of local innovators while tapping into the spirit of fun and outdoor adventure that draws so many people to the high country. “A lot of people move here sacrificing their careers and work to play,” said Lee.
“A lot of these people have college degrees. It’s wicked admirable—to leave your career in the dust to go play. We’d like to reinforce that you can move here and you can build that career while you are playing.”
“When I think about events and programming, a lot of it is about how do we create the community we want to see—how do we provide relevance to people when and where they need it,” Kemp said. “Do they need time management skills? Do they need personal development workshops?”
For Kemp, content curation involves not only surveying community members, but keeping an eye out for cross-pollinating experiences like BCA’s Breckenridge International Festival of Arts, which emphasizes audience participation. “Our Camp 9600 is a version of that. It’s interactive, and it’s performance because you stand up and present,” she said of the Breckenridge Arts District-based workshop, offered by the Breckenridge Tourism Office, which is geared toward the outdoor recreation and travel industry. “That kind of creative thinking can spark a zillion different ideas.”
Similar to contemporary art, and in keeping with new movements in technology and the sharing economy, Kemp and her partners hope to help push the business community forward by programming “events that will shake and disrupt and maybe make people a little uncomfortable,” she said, but at the same time “introduce them to new ways of thinking and interacting.”
The technology and storytelling communities, too, have long used the term “curating” to refer to collecting and displaying content in a way that is interesting and accessible to audiences.
Otherwise, you run the risk of missing the mark, Spiro said, recalling her own frustration with the “almost insultingly esoteric” artwork at exhibitions she attended in grad school. “The artwork I’ve enjoyed most has been accessible from different standpoints—you can appreciate it on an intellectual level, and you can appreciate it on an emotional level,” she said.
One of her current projects involves organizing student art shows for grades 9-12, with the ultimate goal of having young people curate the shows from start to finish. “You realize how many factors are involved, from what is the title of the show, to who is eligible to submit, to how you choose the artwork,” she said. “It brings up issues of fairness that are really transferrable to other areas of life—how can you be equitable or egalitarian, so you get out of the bubble of your limited perspective, and try to find other opinions to inform programming or shows.”
“I have a very open perspective on what art is and what art can do,” Dial-Kay agreed— an outlook that may prove essential to accomplishing her goal, which is to bring art to new audiences. Together with other, less traditional “curators” around town, it promises to evolve the creative scene in a way that’s uniquely reflective of the mountain community, and utterly outside the lines.
Photos: Liam Doran