Frank Talks

Amanda Schmitt – New York-based Curator

Amanda Schmitt - New York-based Curator
Amanda Schmitt - New York-based Curator

Amanda Schmitt is a New York-based curator focusing on video, sound, performance and time-based media, with a core interest in memory technologies. Amanda has curated over 60 exhibitions, video screenings and performance series since 2006. Amanda is currently the director of kaufmann repetto, a contemporary art gallery with locations in Milan and New York. In recent years, Amanda has held the role of the Director of Programming and Development for the Untitled Art fair in Miami Beach and San Francisco, overseeing Special Projects and Programming, as well as launching the innovative program, Untitled Radio and the Untitled Art Podcast, platforms which takes the place of the customary program of fair panels and replacing it with live and pre-recorded audio and musical performances, talks and interviews, curated playlists, readings, and experimental recordings. In January 2018, Amanda debuted the fair’s newest platform, Untitled, Cinema, partnering with the Bay Area’s most respected film and video archives and organizations. In recent years, Amanda has been curating independently with exhibitions and screenings at Anthology Film Archives, New York; Fredericks & Freiser, New York; Helsinki Contemporary, Helsinki; ProsjektromNormanns, Stavanger; The Club, Tokyo; GRIN, Providence, RI; SIGNAL, Brooklyn, NY; Marlborough Contemporary, New York; The Suburban, Chicago, IL; Guest Projects, London; Horton Gallery, New York; Esopus Space, New York, NY; Porter Butts Gallery, Madison; among others, as well as on digital platforms such as ORTVI at Daata-Editions. Schmitt also founded the experimental exhibition and events space, A Thin Place, in Berlin, which ran for a brief time in 2013. Schmitt is a regular contributor to Texte zur Kunst.

What was your first job in the Arts? 

I was a gallery attendant at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, in my hometown of Madison, WI. 

What was the most useful or important thing you learned at that job?

The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA), I’m sorry to say, had very little traffic, so most of the time I was sitting in the museum galleries alone with the art. I worked there while I was studying and many employees there were students; somehow, I didn’t get the memo that gallery attendants were allowed to keep a book (with them to pass the time during these slow hours) and so for two years I would spend 20-30 hours in an empty museum gallery simply looking at and thinking about art. We had great projects at the time with Sol LeWitt, the Hairy Who, Jess, Barbara Probst, George Segal, and Jasper Johns, along with great works in the collection by Philip Guston, Sam Gilliam, Gladys Nilsson, Frida Kahlo, Jim Nutt, Roger Brown, Romaire Bearden, and more – it was an intensive lesson in taking the time to think about art, and allowing your perceptions of it to change over time. Meaning is never fixed.  

Tell us a little more about yourself. When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in this industry?

Growing up in Wisconsin, I had very little (if any) exposure to “contemporary art”. I wasn’t really even aware of art outside of “arts and craft” until I became involved in the underground music scenes and the subcultures that come along with it. My mother, being very sensitive to my interest, needs, and ambitions (even before I was aware of it), brought me to New York when I was 17, and we visited MOMA for the first time. It was all so exciting, like a movie to be, but it was an Eva Hesse sculpture that grabbed me most profoundly — I remember because I made sketch of it in my diary at the time, and I was so confounded by its form. The following year, for a school assignment, I went to go see the Dan Flavin retrospective at MCA Chicago, which was the event that really sealed the deal. Seeing the work was so emotive and frustrating and brought up so many questions; I wanted nothing else than to spend time trying to answer them. From there I began writing about art, and then curating, and by 19 I was in New York doing internships at Electronic Arts Intermix and a young gallery in the Lower East Side called SUNDAY.  

What do you do now? 

I’m a curator, writer, and currently the director of kaufmann repetto in New York.  

Where are you from? 

Wisconsin.  

What is the arts community like there? 

When I think of the arts in Wisconsin, I immediately think of the James Watrous murals at the Memorial Union, a public building used by students and citizens alike on campus. It was made possible by funding from the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs that supported visual artists during the Great Depression. I think of this because I feel that the arts community in Wisconsin is greatly influenced by public funding and public engagement, and in stark contrast to the international ‘art world’. I spent four years studying art at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, which were absolutely formative years for me. The University system had ample opportunities for funding projects, and I took great advantage of them to curate exhibitions, publish, and launch a video and film series. At the time, Wisconsin had great state funding for public art projects (by now, after the Walker administration, this has sadly changed), and there was a lively community of artists and craftspeople who took advantage of this.  

The underground music scene was especially strong in the Midwest too, and I really don’t separate this from some of my first experiences with art.  

Has where you come from shaped what you do in the arts today? 

Yes, people in Wisconsin are hard-workers and many come from families of farmers: it gave me the mentality that you’ll reap what you sow.

What is the best piece of advice you can give about working in the art world?

The artist always comes first! Without the artist, there would be no “art world”. 

What is one of your greatest accomplishments in your career so far?

First of all, I’d say moving to New York and carving out a place for myself has been the greatest accomplishment of all. However, when I look back on some of the projects I’ve curated over the last years, I am overwhelmed with pride  to have had the opportunity to work so closely with so many artists that I so deeply admire: Some really special highlights include working with Jacqueline de Jong on the “Shredded Facsimile” at the Defacement show in Tokyo; screening the work of Paul Ryan and Erkki Kurreniemi together at Anthology Film Archives for the very first time; curating the group exhibition “Surface Support” at one of the greatest exhibition spaces I’ve known, SIGNAL, run by incredibly generous free-thinkers Kyle Jacques and Alexander Johns; commissioning three new works by Madeline Hollander, Hans Rosenstrom, and Pearl Pigao for “Future Delay” at a part of my MOBIUS Fellowship in Finland; launching own podcast for sound arrt; and having my work on “Throwback Jack” discussed by Linda Norden at the Marfa Foundation; publishing several texts for Texte zur Kunst … there are so many, it’s hard to pick the greatest. Let’s say, every day I’m in New York and doing a job that I absolutely love, that’s an accomplishment. 

What has been a challenge for you?

When I moved to New York, I only knew two people. Meeting people, growing a network, and eventually finding a community, was a huge challenge in New York for someone who was an “outsider” when I arrived.

What is something you do every day at the office (or your current home office)?

I constantly and carefully manage a “to do” list; it’s important to visit and re-evaluate it every day, as priorities are constantly changing. 

What is one of the weirdest things you have had to do on the job in your career?

In 2017 I curated a solo exhibition of work by Michael Zwack at the Suburban in Chicago. Zwack was a Houngan (a high Voudou priest), and as a way to inaugurate the show, he held a Voudou ‘good luck’ ceremony and ritual for only 7 people, to bless the paintings and the attendees.  

What defines a good employee? What defines a good boss? 

I can’t define a good employee or a good boss, but I would say both roles need to know how to listen in order to succeed in their roles, and honesty in communication (or “frankness”) is absolutely crucial in all relationships!

What do you think makes a person hirable?

Make known your strengths and admit your weaknesses. Passion for the job and proactivity are also key. 

What is your advice to making yourself stand out in your workplace? Any good tips for a giving a great interview?

I think it’s important to be as honest as possible in an interview; no sugar-coating or adapting your answers to what you think the interviewee wants to hear. I’ve always worked at, and interviewed for, smaller companies that usually have less than a dozen employees that work very closely together. It’s important that you interview as yourself so that you can be yourself at the job. If it’s the right fit, it will stick.  

Is there any advice you would like to give people entering the art world?

Know who you are, where you come from, and where you want to go. 

Any other anecdotes about your working experience that you would like to share?

When I first started off on this career track, I took internships and jobs in so many different roles: publishing, nonprofit, galleries, art fairs, and so on. For me, it was so important to dip my toes in myriad roles to gain a fuller perspective on how this industry works. I would recommend the same for any person getting started.

 What is the best exhibition you have seen in the last year?

I’ve enjoyed watching video art on ORTVI, a new streaming platform for video art which launched early in 2020. 

If you could own a work by 5 different artists, who would be in your collection?

Asger Jorn, Édouard Vuillard, Lee Lozano, RH Quaytman, and Carla Accardi.

Have you seen any virtual exhibitions recently that you would like to comment on?

I’m very proud of the Corita Kent viewing room that we recently launched in conjunction with the retrospective solo exhibition “to the everyday miracle” that we have on view now at kaufmann repetto Milan.

What artwork is in your home office? 

In the past years, I’ve added works (to my humble collection) by a number of female artists in my peer generation whom I think are making incredible and exciting work: Kat Lyons, Ebecho Muslimova, Alissa McKendrick, Caitlin Keogh, Madeline Hollander, Lucia Love, Whitney Claflin, and Sofi Brazzeal.

How do you think art should be shared and/or experienced moving forward? 

I’ve always been proponent for sharing art digitally, which is why I became interested in video and sound art very early on when I was still living in Wisconsin, because being able to share files digitally allowed me to connect with artists all over the world. So I’ve been quite open and optimistic to the development of Online Viewing Rooms and digital programming, etc. In fact, I launched a live-streaming radio program and podcast precisely for these reasons: I thought that through sound art, we wouldn’t allow geography to be a barrier to art.

That being said, I also believe there’s nothing like seeing art in person and I’d advocate for everyone to live with art in their home, and not only in museums. 

How has your current job adapted to the new virtual landscape? What do you think can be done better?

At kaufmann repetto, we began by launching a few “OVRS” that involved conducting long-format interviews with the artists — Pae White, Magdalena Suarez Frimkess, Dianna Molzan, Adrian Paci, the archive of Corita Kent at the Corita Art Center — and producing projects that went deeper into the artists’ practices, into their studios, and behind the scenes. While we launched our first OVR over a year ago, we still receive feedback about important engagement with these platforms and they’ve been incredibly fruitful in educating our audience and establishing deeper connections. 

What is your go to snack in quarantine? And your go to soundtrack?

My go to snack is dried mango. I listened to a Laurie Spiegel’s “The Expanding Universe” this past year while working from home. 

Since we are all at home and exploring more galleries and museums online, perhaps some for the first time, when the quarantine is lifted, what is your first art filled destination?

The next art fair that will be up and running! I am hoping it will be Basel or Basel Miami, two fairs I always love traveling for. 

And finally, do you think the art world should be more transparent?

Yes.

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