This week we sit down with Elizabeth Larison, who is the Director of Operations at apexart. Elizabeth manages the organization’s Exhibition Programs. Working with guest curators and artists, she provides curatorial, editorial, and production-related support for apexart’s exhibitions in New York City and around the world. She also handles the day-to-day administration of the organization, including development, human resources, and finance management. Prior to this, she was apexart’s Director of Programs, in which she oversaw theorganization’s signature Fellowship Program and Public Programs. In addition to her work at apexart, Elizabeth has developed educational and curatorial programming for New York City institutions such as Flux Factory, the Park Avenue Armory, and the Judd Foundation, and her writing has been published in BOMB Magazine and Art 21 Magazine. She holds a BA in Human Rights and an MA in Curatorial Studies, both from Bard College. Please enjoy Elizabeth’s Frank Talk, we certainly did and are excited to share it with you below!
What was your first job in the Arts?
In college I had a work-study job as a gallery assistant at a contemporary art museum on campus. The museum was affiliated with a graduate program in curatorial studies, which was something I had never heard of before. Essentially my job was tracking attendance and making sure no one touched the art.
What was the most useful or important thing you learned at that job?
It showed me another world I wasn’t aware of and introduced me to the work of a wide range of contemporary artists. I learned that a lot of rules—pertaining to art, museums, exhibitions—were not actually rules at all, and that norms could be challenged or re-established. It really sparked my imagination and allowed me to consider unconventional experiences and objects as poetic and strange, worthy of note, and capable of holding so many other histories and stories. Some eleven years later I decided to go back to school and enrolled in that same curatorial program.
Tell us a little more about yourself. When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in this industry?
Childhood aspirations aside, it was when I was in an artist-in-residence at Flux Factory, an artist run space and collective in Queens. At that point, I had worked in a healthcare non-profit and had a background that was more suggestive of a career in social justice or international relations and I think in some sense I had taken this residency as an opportunity for pause and potential reorientation. Through the programs and events there, I was introduced to wonderful and interesting people from around the world who were addressing a wide range of ideas through various techniques, mediums, and styles. It gave me life and excitement in a way my former experiences hadn’t, and I think that influenced me a lot.
What do you do now?
I am the Director of Operations at apexart. I oversee the organization’s operations and exhibition programs, which means working with an always-rotating roster of curators to help bring their ideas to fruition within apexart’s program format.
Where are you from?
Cortland, New York
What is the arts community like there?
It’s in a rural county, and while there are some artists there, it’s not especially common. Growing up, a local art community felt pretty nonexistent, though I think it grew a bit after I left. An arts center opened nearby about 15 years ago, which allows local artists to show their work. From what I understand, it provides a forum for presentation and exchange, which is great.
Has where you come from shaped what you do in the arts today?
I can say that where I come from has informed what I like about my job. Coming from a small town where contemporary and modern art weren’t really emphasized or accessible, I used to get very intimidated when people would discuss the arts, posturing like they knew everything. Now I find myself working at an organization whose core mission is to expand and encourage participation in and access to the arts, to not make it this exclusive thing for the wealthy and well-connected. The best example of this is apexart’s Open Calls, in which literally anyone with access to the internet and a command of the English language can be a juror (deciding what exhibitions we produce in the coming year), or propose an exhibition. The result of this process is that we have ideas coming from, and then juried by, people from close to 70 countries around the world.
What is the best piece of advice you can give about working in the art world?
Well, there are many “art worlds” that exist for very different reasons. I think it’s important to be frank with yourself about what you’re doing, and why and for whom you are doing it.
What is one of your greatest accomplishments in your career so far?
Last year, one of our exhibitions in New York featured the work of two Iranian artists, and in the same year, one of the proposals that won apexart’s Open Call was an exhibition to happen in Tehran, the curators and artists of which are all Iranian. So in one situation we had to figure out whether and how we could pay two artists an exhibition fee, and in the other we had to figure out whether and how we could finance an entire exhibition in Iran without putting the organization at risk because of sanctions. Because I oversee the exhibitions at apexart, the responsibility of figuring this out largely fell on me and over the course of about three months we sought the advice of New York-based arts organizations and legal organizations focusing on that region of the world; contacted Iranian artists and curators; and contacted institutions based in New York who had recently shown work by Iranian artists. Most had absolutely no knowledge or experience with how to deal with this particular issue, which made the whole thing feel more daunting.
Eventually, we learned that we could apply for authorization to send funds to Iranians through the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which is part of the Department of Treasury in the State Department. The application itself was relatively straight forward. For six months we heard absolutely nothing besides that the reviews were still underway. The artists and curators affected by this were checking in with us periodically, and it was deeply disheartening to tell them each time that we still had no news and were blindly hoping for the best.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere and half a year later, we received authorization to pay the two artists, and about a week later, we were given authorization to send funds for the exhibition in Tehran. I was ecstatic. It means a lot to me that we as an organization can compensate artists regardless of where they are based, and that we can financially support the projects which have been selected by our jurors, regardless of where they take place. The exhibition in Tehran opens in mid-February 2020 and you can read more about it here.
What has been a challenge for you?
In my job I’m often dealing with multiple production schedules and time zones at once. It’s a lot to keep track of, and sometimes my brain is so oversaturated with scheduling that I am reluctant to do it for myself in my life outside of work, whether it’s exercise, writing, seeing exhibitions or talks—you name it. I go through spurts where I am able to do this, though, and I always am better for it.
What is something you do every day at work?
There are probably hundreds of things I do every day, which sounds really boring. Some of the most important: stay on top of email, stay on top of the calendar, drink tea, greet everyone who comes in the door and if they are interested, tell them more about what we do and encourage them to get involved.
What is one of the weirdest things you have had to do on the job in your career?
I once had to transfer goat testicles from butcher paper to a jar prepared with formaldehyde. It was for a performance wherein two people would stitch embroidery into the flesh. The fumes were so bad I had to do this on the sidewalk which felt sketchy and hilarious. Just another day at work, everyone.
What defines a good employee? What defines a good boss?
I think a good employee is someone who can make themselves versatile, able to excel at their stated responsibilities but also look ahead and problem solve, and, especially in small organizations: offer support to colleagues when it’s needed. A good boss doesn’t just identify challenges but helps strategize solutions with employees so that they are not just growing their organization or company but helping employees grow too.
What do you think makes a person hirable?
Having demonstrated, relevant experience and demonstrated interest and curiosity in what the organization or company is doing.
What is your advice to making yourself stand out in your workplace?
Most places I’ve worked have had very small staff numbers so I can speak best to this context, so it is probably less about “standing out” and more about making a notable positive impact. Aside from doing your own job and doing it well: find ways to innovate or advance your individual and group goals (it goes a long way), be ready to put in extra time and effort when it is necessary (but set healthy boundaries), get to know your colleagues, and do what you can to actively contribute to a positive work atmosphere.
What are things you can do proactively boost your CV?
Go to talks, events, openings, conferences, and meet people. Whatever your thing is (criticism, research, curating, administration, art-making, organizing, etc.) you’re bound to make connections with people who can help identify opportunities and forums for you. Seek opportunities to advance your education or professional experience.
Are there any tips you can give people entering the workforce?
Know what you have to offer, but be ready to be humbled, and be ready to learn. Ask colleagues advice about challenges you’re running into, and even about general things about how they manage their workflow if it’s especially challenging. If they’ve been employed longer than you, they likely have strategies they will be happy to share.
In your experience, what are things to do and things to avoid during an interview?
Demonstrate an ability to listen and respond thoughtfully to the people in the room and the questions they are asking. Where prompted, get specific! Come with questions related to the specific opportunity, which shows you have given it some thought. Don’t assume it is obvious to the hiring committee that you are perfect for the job.
What is the best exhibition you have seen in the last year?
It’s more than a year ago now, but I still think about it regularly and sincerely wish I could see it again. One Hand Clapping at the Guggenheim.