Frances Wu Giarratano is the Deputy Director at Independent Curators International (ICI). Giarratano rejoined ICI after positions as the Director of Exhibitions at the American Federation of Arts, where she oversaw its expanding exhibitions program, and the Deputy Director at Para Site, Hong Kong, where she was responsible for the growth of Hong Kong’s leading and longest-running contemporary art space. Prior to that, she was the Associate Director of Exhibitions at ICI, where she oversaw all aspects of the organization’s touring exhibitions program, which included 14 exhibitions a year. She worked with more than 100 international institutions (including Para Site in 2009), and directed the production of nine ICI publications, including the award- winning Martha Wilson Sourcebook (2011) and Hans Ulrich Obrist’s do it: the compendium (2013). Giarratano holds a B.A. in art history from Georgetown University and a M.A. in museum studies from New York University.
AF: Hi Fran! We are so excited to chat with you. Please tell us a little more about yourself, when did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in this industry?
FWG: Thank you so much for inviting me to share! I grew up in the suburbs of L.A., and despite the fact that my parents were literal rocket scientists, I caught the art history bug fairly early. My favorite book in elementary school was Linnea in Monet’s Garden, and throughout my childhood I loved reading about art and visiting museums. By the time I was in high school, I already knew I wanted to study art history in college, and I spent my college summers interning at different arts organizations (a community art center in LA, a commercial gallery in New York, and a collecting museum in Washington D.C.) to explore the various career paths within the field.
AF: What was your first ever job? What is an important lesson from it that has carried with you?
FWG: My first full time job was Curatorial Assistant at ICI! It clearly had an impact on me because after 7 years away, I came back. Before ICI, I held many, many internships, and each of them taught me lessons of what to do, and just as importantly, what not to do in my career. Something that’s always stuck was advice given to me when I interned at a blue-chip gallery during college. On my last day, the director who I worked with took me out to lunch and shared her secret to success, which was essentially “be nice!” She told me how she always put the interests of her artists first, took the time to listen to others, and always treated colleagues, and particularly junior staff members with generosity and respect. She reminded me that the art world is very small and the relationships you build throughout your career will have a lasting impact.
AF: You are the Deputy Director at Independent Curators International! Tell us more about ICI and your role!
FWG: ICI is a non-profit organization based in New York that supports the work of contemporary art curators through professional development programs, traveling exhibitions, public programs, and publishing. ICI is incredibly unique in that it has worked across all 50 states and with curators based in more than 70 countries. This vast network that is global in scope, but human in scale makes ICI a truly special place to work.
As Deputy Director, I work closely with the Executive & Artistic Director and the Board of Trustees to ensure the organization’s achievement of its mission through both long-range strategic planning and the day-to-day running of ICI. I oversee Communications, Administration, Governance, and Finance.
AF: What does an average day at work look like for you? What does a great day look like?
FWG: An average day of work is very unglamorous, and mostly consists of emails and meetings. But a great day is any day we can bring people together, whether it’s at the opening of ICI’s traveling exhibition States of Becoming at The Africa Center in Harlem or when a Curatorial Intensive alum from across the world comes to visit our offices, and it turns into an impromptu reunion.
AF: What do you find to be the most challenging part of your job?
FWG: I started my new role at ICI in December 2019, and in less than 3 months, the pandemic hit. Figuring out how to recalibrate and pivot in ways that were in the best interest of the organization and its staff was the biggest challenge of my professional career. Since then, everything about the job has felt relatively easy! 🙂 I guess I would say that the biggest challenge now is matching resources to opportunities. There is an abundance of collaboration and project opportunities, but a limit to the staff, time, and administrative and financial resources, so making judgments about when to push, or pull-back, or expand or invest, can be exciting, but also challenging.
AF: What are you most excited for at ICI this season?
FWG: This Fall, I am most excited for ICI’s Annual Benefit and Auction, which will be the first gala dinner we’ve hosted since 2019. These events are always a huge amount of work, but on the night of, once all of the tickets have been sold and the auction is underway, it’s incredible to feel the love and support for ICI in one room. I’m also excited for the opening of our newest traveling exhibition Teddy Sandoval and the Butch Gardens School of Art in L.A. We had such a successful and rewarding experience working with curators C. Ondine Chavoya and David Evans Frantz on the tour of Axis Mundo that we wanted to extend our collaboration for another 7 years!
AF: As you know, Art Frankly is a community that cares about job transparency and supporting fellow art professionals. What is the best piece of advice you can give about working in the art world?
FWG: Particularly for those who are at the beginning of their careers, I would say keep an open mind. There are so many different roles in the art world and sometimes a path that you didn’t expect to take is the one that best utilizes your skills and provides the most job satisfaction and opportunities.
AF: How do you think the art world can become more transparent?
FWG: I think one way the art world can become more transparent is by encouraging arts organizations and institutions to participate in collaborative efforts to share best practices and collectively address common challenges. In 2020, ICI helped form the Coalition of Small Arts (CoSA NYC) to not only bring greater visibility and funding opportunities to small-scale arts organizations and the communities they serve, but to also share information, resources, and insights to better advocate for ethical practices and transparency in the field.
AF: Fran, thank you so much for participating in Frank Talks, it has been a delight to chat with you! To finish off, we’d love to ask our classic final question: If you could own work by 5 different artists/craftspeople, who would be in your collection?
FWG: My current dream acquisitions include a mobile by Alexander Calder, sculpture by Ruth Asawa, photograph by Taryn Simon, a Joseph Cornell box, and a painting by Etel Adnan!