Frank Talks

Ashley Ouderkirk – Freelance Art Writer, Artist Advisor and Independent Curator

Ashley Ouderkirk (she/her) is a freelance art writer, artist advisor, and independent curator splitting her time between Queens and Los Angeles. She received her B.A. from Syracuse University and her M.A. in Art History from CUNY Hunter College. Her work and passion centers around rethinking and expanding the relationship between art and audience, while always grounding her projects in an inclusive history of art. In 2018, she was an assistant curator for The Masters: Art Students League Teachers and their Students, a three-venue exhibition with 511 Projects, Hirschl & Adler Gallery, and the Art Students League, of over 100 artworks of the 20th and 21st century by the major artists who studied, taught or both studied and taught at the League. Her published exhibition reviews can be found on Art and Cake and Art[Memo], two Los Angeles-focused contemporary art magazines. Her most recent project is OuderkirkonArt, a blog and Instagram dedicated to “acknowledge, examine, and value frequently overlooked artists and art venues,” which complements her emerging artist advisory work.

What was the most important thing you learned at your first job in the Arts? 

One of my first jobs in the art world was an internship at the Opera del Duomo Museo in Florence, Italy.  I was tasked with giving weekly tours of the museum to English speaking patrons and got to choose what I wanted to highlight on the tour. I remember being ecstatic as my concentration was early Renaissance sculpture, so you can’t get more ideal than that right?  I took the role very seriously and thoroughly researched each piece on my tour, and practiced so many times so I wouldn’t be nervous. Besides this being one of my favorite jobs of all time, it also taught me how people interact with art and how to make it accessible to them.  Most people wanted to know the story behind each work, who these artists were and why this sculpture was radical for its time— but making that interesting for them was turning it into a story rather than just relying on the facts or esoteric terms that only art historians care about.  I also taught them how to read a work of art by identifying iconography they could look for when they visited other cathedrals— such as identifying saints like the evangelists always holding a book.  And above all, I learned that children ask the best questions.  If you ever want to know if an exhibition is successful, bring in an eight year old to grill you — they notice the subtlest details and can read emotions and mood in artworks far better than adults. 

Where are you from and what is the arts community like there? How has your upbringing shaped what you do in the arts today?

I’m originally from Toronto, Ontario, but moved to Syracuse, NY after my parents separated.  I came from what we called a “lower-middle class” family in a multigenerational household.  Growing up, I didn’t know much about the arts community in Syracuse besides for the occasional class trip to the Everson Museum (which is a great museum with a fantastic ceramics and video art collection). All I really knew was that I loved drawing and painting since I was a child, and got quite good once I was in high school.  My father is a visual artist and sign painter, so I inherited a fraction of his talent.  Although I attended an inner city high school, with mediocre resources, I was lucky to have an extremely emphatic art teacher — Mrs. Linda LaBella-Morgan — who was determined to find ways for us to have access to all the same resources as the wealthy suburban schools.  My senior year she was certified to teach a college-level art history class, and I took it because she suggested it to me. What changed everything and switched me from the artist to art historian path was a single slide.  It was Michelangelo’s red chalk drawing of one of the Sistine Chapel figures, Studies for the Libyan Sybil (recto).  I had never seen a drawing like that before with every back muscle flexed, the twisting of her torso, and subtle articulation of her pushing off that big toe.  It was so elegant, so dynamic and I just needed to know everything about this person, who, until then I only knew a Ninja Turtle was named after. I finally saw the drawing in person at the Met’s show a few years ago,  and it still has the same power over me.

What have been your greatest accomplishments?

I honestly try to celebrate every accomplishment, big or small, as sometimes just writing a paragraph feels like you’ve moved heaven and earth that day.  But I would say that most recently when Kunstraum accepted me as their curator-in-residence, it felt amazing, and I finally felt seen and validated for my past curatorial work.  

Another project that I was very fortunate to be a part of as a curatorial assistant was The Master: Art Students League Teachers and Their Students in 2018.  It was an ambitious three venue show and partnership between 511 Projects, Hirschl & Adler Gallery and The Art Students League to examine the legacy and influences on some of (most of) the biggest names in 20th century American Art like Robert Henri, Stuart Davis, Norman Rockwell, Georgia O’Keeffe, Mark Rothko, Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaller, Marisol, Adrian Piper and Louise Bourgeois — to highlight a handful of the 80 or more artists whose works we secured for the show. I learned so much from researching this project and it was just an important story to tell and show how this community formed around a school, and truly changed American Art securing New York as the epicenter of the art world.

What have been your greatest challenges in your career thus far     

Money.  Money has always been the challenge.  For me, it’s never been about needing to be wealthy, but more having a living wage to be comfortable in this expensive city.  Perhaps, one of the darkest moments for me was when I had to turn down a job at a museum, because I couldn’t figure out a way to live off the salary they were offering me.  It was devastating. And in a strange twist of fate, I made the difficult decision to change industries and worked in finance at a hedge fund for ten years.  First as an administrative assistant and eventually as a trading assistant. I have zero regrets, I learned a great deal about the economy, capitalism, politics, and accumulated immeasurable business and project management skills, which I use today. When I got laid off in 2017, I again made a difficult choice and returned to art and turned my back on a very comfortable lifestyle —I moved passion ahead of comfort.  It was terrifying and exhilarating, but I just had to trust the path I chose and hope the money would eventually follow.  I look forward to when it finds me. 

What else are you working on right now?

In addition to my work at Kunstraum, I’m also a freelance art writer and emerging artist consultant.  For the writing, I try to write exhibition reviews about artists or art venues that are not as well known, because I know they need the most visibility, and I know what it’s like to feel invisible.  As an emerging artist consultant, my objective is to help them with the basics and put them on paths to success.  The goal is always to get their work seen and get it exhibited.

Tell us more about your upcoming exhibition, ADJUSTED for Inflation, which you’ve curated as Curator-in-Residence at Kunstraum LLC?

As soon as I completed the first few studio visits with Kunstraum’s artists, the exhibition quickly turned into a passion project. Usually when people hear, “oh a summer group show” they think of something pulled together loosely under a generic innocuous theme. But I really saw this as an opportunity to say something important and to address the real pain our country and individuals are facing.  Collectively, we’ve experienced and are experiencing these tsunamis of crises — covid, mass unemployment, erosion of civil liberties, racial injustices, political unrest, gun violence, inflation, mental health deterioration — and the waves just keep crashing upon us.  I thought, how are people processing all this, because I know I’m struggling with most of it.  From there, I became curious how it was translating into artists’ work:  What changes were they making to their practices?  How were they adjusting to create through all these hardships?  And with each conversation I had with the fourteen artists chosen for the show, I was introduced to a different perspective, approach, reaction and way of thinking about these contemporary issues.  

I chose to title the show ADJUSTED for Inflation as at the time, inflation was quickly becoming the next serious issue for us to face (before the Supreme Court ruling on abortion; the next mass shootings and the January 6th hearings). I also fixated on the definition of the economic term, and specifically on the concept of “real” value.  I thought about what determines the “real” value of any given situation in our lives.  It’s really how we react to it, our emotional response and how we choose to shift our perspective to try to cope. The more complex the problem, the greater the emotional toll, and ultimately the more extreme the adjustment.  The word ADJUSTED is all capitalized to emphasize and acknowledge how we have all ‘adjusted’ our lives, routines and thinking to meet the needs and demands of this rapid and unpredictable time. 

What I hope viewers take away when they see this show is that their struggles — financial, spiritual, philosophical and mental — are seen. By acknowledging these obstacles visually and audibly through each artwork, we are granted an opportunity  to process the issues, and know that there are solutions.  I hope that viewers are reminded of their own inner strengths and their uncanny abilities to adjust in the worst of inflationary times. 

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

Network. This industry is all about who you know and with each new introduction you never know what project or opportunity may come from it.  I would also say cast a wide net and expand your network to include people from all parts of the eco-system including:  artists, dealers, curators, art writers, art handlers, restorers, framers, advisors, interior designers, collectors, etc.  Everyone has an important role to play.

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

An impossible question to answer!  But I guess I can answer it by naming some of the artists I’m kicking myself for not buying when I first saw their work.  I love the textile-collage portrait paintings of Nigerian artist Marcelina Akpojotor.  I first saw her work at the LA Art Show, and was in awe. I should have grabbed it when I had the chance.  I’m also completely smitten with the sculptural paintings of Iranian artist Arghavan Khosravi for her surrealist compositions.  I think she took surrealism to the next level by exploring the female mind, and has pushed the boundaries with confidence.  I’m also a huge fan of LA-based artist Rodrigo Valenzuela’s photography.  Not only for his abstract compositions, but also for his entire artistic process of crafting these complex installations and temporary sculptures that focus on labor.  I would of course also love to have the impossible acquisitions — a Mark Rothko painting from 1950, as I wrote my MA thesis on him, and a work by my favorite sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini.  His mastery of marble and dynamic composition still floors me — I’ve yet to have another sculptor make me feel the same way. 

Be sure to check out ADJUSTED for Inflation – Part 2 at Kunstraum in Brooklyn, NY on August 28th. Alternatively, click here to view the artworks online!

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