Jennifer Zwilling is the Curator and Director of Artistic Programs. She joined The Clay Studio in 2015 and administers the Resident Artist Program, Exhibitions, The Collection, and the Guest Artist in Residence Program. She earned her BA in History from Ursinus College and MA in Art History from Temple University, Tyler School of Art. Previously, she was Assistant Curator of American Decorative Arts and Contemporary Craft at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Jennifer developed and taught History of Modern Craft at Tyler School of Art for ten years, and has taught and lectured around the world. She represents TCS as a founding Board Member of CraftNOW Philadelphia.
Areas of specialist interest:
Embracing Curatorial Discomfort: Thoughts on Clay and Conversations, 2018
My goal as a curator is to help people have revelatory experiences through viewing art. At The Clay Studio my office is right next to the gallery, and I often have the privilege of listening to visitors’ comments or am able to engage them in direct conversation about what they are thinking and feeling while viewing exhibitions in the gallery. My previous work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) allowed very little chance to connect to the audience; this new arrangement feeds my desire to directly help visitors connect with art. That direct connection to the audience is now greatly intensified through a project we began in 2017 called Clay & Conversations. In advance of The Clay Studio’s move to a new neighborhood (expected in 2020) we designed projects to begin forging relationships with our new neighbors in South Kensington, an area about a mile north of our current location.
The Clay & Conversations project allowed me to enter completely new, and sometimes daunting, new territory. As an art historian trained in the standard canon of paintings, sculpture, and architecture, I expanded my knowledge base into historical decorative arts and contemporary craft art during my early career work at the PMA and teaching History of Craft at Tyler School of Art. It was not until starting at The Clay Studio in 2015 that my curatorial practice expanded into working with living artists. Before Clay & Conversations I had no experience working directly with community members on social engagement focused projects. The project was designed to help us consider the exhibition program in our new building with our new neighbors in mind. We are dedicated to showing high quality art, emerging and established artists, art by various constituencies within our community, and art that is relevant to our community. We posed questions such as: How do we make all constituencies within our community feel comfortable and welcome in the space? How do we reflect our surroundings, and also show art from a variety of communities, cultures, histories?
I feel incredibly fortunate to explore this new territory in a supportive environment that allows for risk-taking and mistakes. Working at a small non-profit like The Clay Studio provides great latitude for experimentation. The Clay & Conversations project is an exhibition research project. I wanted to talk to our new neighbors directly about how to make them feel welcomed into, and to feel agency for the gallery in our new building. The Gallery program does not usually use hands-on activities to engage people. Lack of experience in that process could have sunk the entire project, or at the least consumed most of the effort expended to produce the events. With the incredible support of our amazing Education Department colleagues who do this work every day, we were able to undertake hands-on work while focusing on the conceptual goals of listening to the participants.
Project artists Roberto Lugo and Jennie Shanker, myself, and my colleague Josie Bockelman developed four art making activities to pair with discussion questions. Each event combined a clay based art making project with discussion topics focused on participants thoughts about their neighborhood: past, present, future, fears, and hopes. The core concept was based on the idea that people experience a decline in stress hormones, and an increase of brain activity while working with their hands, thus creating the perfect environment for meaningful conversation.
During the year-long planning process I experienced uncertainty and discomfort. The discomfort felt productive, it felt good to be pushing into new territory, but the stakes were high to get it right. As a traditional, museum trained curator, I was not experienced in navigating the role of a curator mediating a social engagement project. Where does the boundary lie between curating a social engagement project driven by artists, and being the driving creative force oneself? The very moment that the curator chooses to do a project, and sets the parameters (participants, goals, methods), artistic ownership occurs. How do you then engage the creativity of the chosen artists without dictating too much of the project yourself? This is especially difficult for a curator/art historian, like myself, who is trained to examine the art of the past, and do everything possible to acknowledge and remove bias from the study of art, artists, and social context. Being in a position to necessarily help shape the making of art felt almost unethical. Who gave me the right to make creative choices?
My doubts were focused on whether my ideas for the art making projects were good (creative/artistic enough) and whether or not it was appropriate for me to put forth my ideas for the workshop projects at all. I wondered whether I should be facilitating the Project Artists in their development of the projects, and trying to keep my creative voice out of the discussion. One of the most satisfying and comforting responses came from Jennie Shanker, who told me she felt my ideas for projects as the curator were valuable, and that she wanted to follow my lead as the primary decision maker for the overall project. As a curator, not an artist, it is difficult to value my creative voice. My creativity is usually used in service of examining and presenting the artistic work of others, that is how I define myself professionally. Stepping into a somewhat artistic role was uncomfortable, but very satisfying once I gave myself permission to do so. This dilemma, where to draw the line between curating and creation, is inherent in creating social engagement projects. It is something that needs to be handled ethically, and deserves the attention of more conversations with curators who regularly do this kind of work. What are this field’s best practices? I am working on building a bibliography on the subject, and finding specific resources outlining best practices.
The project was very successful, the participants reported that they enjoyed it, and now feel deeply connected to The Clay Studio. We have a cohort of 25 people who will continue as our Neighbor Advisory Committee. Clay & Conversations - intended to create connections directly with our new neighborhood in advance of a move, and subsequently for those connections to form the base of a strong working relationship, will inform our exhibition program for years to come. I hope the project will serve as a working model for other organizations like ours that want to connect more deeply with new communities. I hope it will spur more conversation about how to curate social engagement projects ethically. Not only was the effort successful in connecting The Clay Studio with its new neighbors, it was incredibly personally impactful as well. The art field recently has embraced projects of social engagement that give increased value to the viewer and the community member as active participants in works of art. This concept dovetails perfectly with the genesis of my desire to be a curator, and to give people the opportunity to have revelatory experiences through art.
Quotes from Participants
“I feel happy. I forgot about how good working with clay makes me feel. I need to do more arts... I’ve been to a couple events that they [The Clay Studio] had here, but not much.” -Cynthia Solis, participant
“Todo fue super interesante, estoy bien animada con la venida de Clay Studio al barrio, espero participar directamente con el grupo, me ofresco como voluntaria para lo que sea, tambien si hay trabajo estoy dispuesta en general, tremenda labor.” - Yuan Valcarcel, participant
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